Wednesday, March 09, 2005

J.R. House Cut

What? Why?

As with many moves baseball teams make, this one doesn't look like a huge deal. J.R. House is already 25 and he's out for the season. As with many moves Dave Littlefield makes, however, I really don't understand what's going on here. This may have to do with some misunderstanding of roster rules on my part, so let me explain what I think they are, and then if I'm wrong someone can correct me in the comments and I'll fix this.

The situation as of yesterday, as I understand it, was that J.R. House was a member of the Pirates' 40 man roster. He had an option left, which gave the Pirates the right to send him to Indianapolis this year. Since he recently had surgery, he would be out for the year. This would mean that the Pirates could place him on the 60-day DL once the season started and free up a roster space for someone else while retaining House's rights. Then the Pirates could hope House had a speedy recovery and let him try out for a spot on the team in 2006.

As far as I can tell, there was no downside to keeping House around for 2005 - except that the Pirates would have to pay his salary which, according to the article linked above, is about $260,000 more than they now have to pay him in termination pay. Please tell me that a quarter of a million dollars was not the reason House has been released. Please tell me there's something here I'm missing.

I don't mean to overstate the importance of this move. House's star has fallen in the past few years, and rightfully so, since he can't seem to stay healthy. But he has hit the ball hard at nearly every stop in the minors, and last year he hit .344/.508 at Class AAA. That doesn't make him the next Albert Pujols, but it certainly makes him worth keeping around. There's upside there.

Now let's consider the Pirates' catching situation. The Pirates have decided that House is not a catcher; I won't consider that fact here, since the Pirates' judgments of their own minor leaguers have proven wildly off the mark in the past. The Pirates' catchers this year are Humberto Cota and Benito Santiago. Santiago is an enormous collapse risk this year and is way too old to count on in 2006. Cota isn't particularly young and has a spotty track record in the majors and the high minors.

Behind him, there's Ron Paulino and Ryan Doumit. Paulino barely looked like a prospect after 2003 and was added to the roster largely on the strength of his defense and one decent season in 2004. Doumit has upside, but his injury history is at least as complicated and frustrating as House's. Behind those two guys, there are a couple of prospects - Neil Walker and Steve Lerud - who won't be near ready by the time the 2006 season rolls around.

My point is this: given the uncertainties the Pirates have at catcher in 2006, is it ridiculous to think that a fairly young catcher with obvious offensive potential and a record of success in the high minors might come in pretty handy, even if he might have some defensive shortcomings? And if he might come in handy, why cut him just to save the major league equivalent of pocket change?

In the grand scheme of things, this move might not matter; House might never recover, he might not hit, he might play football, or all of the above. But the Pirates gained little by cutting him now, and if House is lucky, he might become yet another Bronson Arroyo - a productive, cheap player who was lost for almost no reason at all.

So what does the future hold for the Bucs' catchers? Like House, Doumit will be out of options soon too. Next time he gets injured, don't be surprised if he gets the ax also. Then, the catching depth the Pirates developed under Cam Bonifay - including Craig Wilson, Chris Shelton, House and Doumit - will be almost completely gone. In the meantime, the Pirates will settle for yet another year of a stopgap veteran with few skills and no upside. Hey, Henry Blanco just signed a two-year contract for more than he's worth - look for Littlefield to trade Tom Gorzelanny for him in about nine months.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not sure what it means from the standpoint of the Pirates organization...but the fact that he is now turning to football is an interesting development.

You would have thought, with what he has invested in a baseball career, he would have fished out something.

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