Thursday, March 31, 2005

Name This Blog

Hello readers,

Please come up with a cool name for this blog. You can email me or post it here in the comments. The name must give some indication that this is a Pirates page. The person who suggests the winning name gets a shout-out in the first post under the new name, and dinner the next time they're in San Diego.

Either the Pirates Have the Worst Farm System in Baseball...

...Or Chris Duffy is not their second best prospect. Which is it?

The hype about Duffy is absurd. He's barely a prospect and will never contribute to a big league team for any sustained period of time.

Also, where are Neil Walker and Tom Gorzelanny?

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Pirates Acquire Ross; Roundup

The Pirates have acquired David Ross from the Dodgers for David Ross for a bit of cash. This is a nice little move. The Pirates had nothing but prospects and question marks at catcher. It wouldn't help them to call up Ryan Doumit or Ronny Paulino to ride the bench if one of their question marks got injured, and if you have to depend on question marks, it's best to have as many as possible.

Ross was terrible for the Dodgers last year, but he hit well in every season before that since 2000. He spent some of that time in hitter-happy Las Vegas, where even Joe Thurston can look good, but he also hit well at Class AA and in brief stints in the majors. He isn't someone you want your team depending on, but he's terrific AAA roster filler - if someone in the big leagues gets injured or tanks, he could probably fill in nicely as a backup, and he might even surprise people by hitting really well for a while. The Pirates took a big risk by going with Benito Santiago and Humberto Cota at catcher this year; Santiago is a huge injury and collapse risk, and Cota has played so sparingly the past two years that it's hard to tell if he's any good or not. Ross helps mitigate that risk.

* * *

The Pirates are close to finalizing their roster, and they've decided their last two bullpen arms will be John Grabow and either Mark Corey or Rick White. Personally, I'd rather play a never-was with a high strikeout rate (Corey) than a washed-up has-been like White, but that's no big deal, and I'm glad to see that Grabow will be in the pen - his strikeout rate was very high last season, and his ERA was a bit high because he allowed more hits than one would expect. He's only 26 this year, so he probably has some upside.

From the same article, Tom Gorzelanny, who is probably the Pirates' best pitching prospect after Zach Duke, is having elbow trouble and might have to have surgery. Jeez, is this a mess.

The Stats Geek offers a best-case scenario for the 2005 Pirates. After a very long introduction about Albert Camus that I can't believe got published (although I liked it), the Geek says that the Pirates' have a shot to succeed because of the number of busts who won't be on their roster anymore. That's reasonable, but the Pirates have replaced those busts (and one big non-bust, Jason Kendall) with a number of players who are huge collapse risks - Santiago, White, Ty Wigginton and Matt Lawton come to mind, as do returning mediocrities like Tike Redman, Daryle Ward, Jose Mesa and Josh Fogg. There is some chance that the Pirates could hit .500 this year, but I'd argue that chance is too tiny to even bother thinking about.

The Hardball Times' new Pirates preview gets many broader points right but misses a lot of details - author Tom Talavage inexplicably omits Chris Stynes from a lists of bad veterans who played for the 2004 Pirates, doesn't seem to get that the A's traded Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes to the Pirates in order to dump their salaries, and doesn't seem to understand that Sean Burnett is out for the foreseeable future.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Williams Named Fifth Starter

Zach Duke to Indianapolis.

I'm quick to criticize Dave Littlefield and Lloyd McClendon when they do things wrong, so I'll be equally quick to praise them for getting this one right. I think Williams will be a solid starter for the Pirates. If he (or Josh Fogg, or Mark Redman) isn't, hopefully Duke will do enough in the minors to guarantee he'll be in Pittsburgh by June.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

On the Oakland A's

Some of the rather ridiculous A's-hate going down in Dejan Kovacevic's new Q+A compels me to give the issue a lot more attention than it deserves.

Kovacevic asks his readers to explain why the management techniques of the Florida Marlins don't get the praise that Oakland's do. He prints several responses and sums up his own position after the first one:

...I disagree 180 degrees about the worth of championships. That is what all sports are about.

Of course they are. The issue here is what role management has to play in championships won.

More from Kovacevic:

I am increasingly convinced that the Beane love affair is more about numbers than anything else. As I wrote above in the Q&A, I am not big on emphasizing statistics above all else. Seems to me there is an entire segment of the baseball-loving community that feels completely comfortable analyzing the game from a cubicle rather than getting out to the stands and watching it. I find such practice to be preposterous. The game is played by humans, not by matrix dots on your PS2 screen.

Strawman alert! Honestly, what baseball fan doesn't watch baseball? And what does that have to do with Oakland GM Billy Beane, who played major league baseball? Watching baseball and trying to organize our observations about it (that's all statistics are, right?) are not mutually exclusive. Obviously.

And then the readers weigh in. Hoo boy.

But Oakland won more due to the Hudson-Mulder-Zito pitching trio than for any other reason. Beane didn't acquire those players.

Uh, hello? Beane drafted Zito and Mulder and was involved in the A's front office when Hudson was drafted. It is certainly no surprise that there are readers submitting arguments with false premises, but why is Kovacevic publishing them? And why doesn't he at least correct them?

Then, from a different reader:

Theo Epstein worshipped at the Billy Beane shrine until a light bulb finally went off in his weasel brain (weasel because he twice pawned off damaged goods on Dave Littlefield in 2003, but that's a different discussion). Adding Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz strengthened two positions at which the Red Sox had been very weak defensively. Look what happened. It only took the Red Sox eight decades to figure out defense wins games.

Oakland has had one of the best defensive teams in baseball the last two years running, and advanced methods of evaluating defense were discussed extensively in Moneyball. It is a ridiculous myth that Beane does not care about defense or that Beane has consistently lost in the playoffs because of poor defense. Beane's A's have fielded some less-than-elite defenses, sure - but they've also fielded some great ones. I'll stop repeating the cliche that "Moneyball is about exploiting market inefficiencies, not OBP" when the people who say otherwise actually read the book or, you know, pay attention to baseball.

Kovacevic simply says "Argh" in response to a reader's question of what we would think of the 2003 Marlins if Josh Beckett and Dontrelle Willis had gone down with injuries that year.

Methinks Kovacevic somehow lacks the ability to see shades of gray here. Kovacevic's position seems to be that if a GM's team wins a championship, he deserves all the credit, whereas if a team fails to win a championship, the GM must be at fault somehow. Why can't a team's performance be the result of both planning and luck?

Obviously - obviously - lots of things that result in wins and losses for his team are out of a GM's control, as the Beckett/Willis question makes abundantly clear. Is it to Marlins GM Larry Beinfest's credit that Beckett and Willis were healthy for most of 2003? Possibly - but why then haven't Beckett or Brad Penny or A.J. Burnett been able to stay healthy in just about any other year? Is it to Beinfest's credit that he acquired Chad Fox to help out down the stretch in 2003, and Fox posted a 2.13 ERA? Possibly - but why then did Fox post a 6.73 ERA for the Marlins in limited duty in 2004? Is it to Beinfest's credit that at midseason, he traded a number of prospects for reliever Ugueth Urbina, who posted an ERA two full runs lower than his career average in 38 1/3 innings down the stretch? Maybe - but why then were all of Beinfest's main in-season acquisitions in 2004 (Paul LoDuca, Guillermo Mota, Juan Encarnacion, Billy Koch and Ismael Valdez) all merely acceptable or downright bad?

I don't mean to suggest that the Marlins' management didn't do anything right in 2003 or the seasons that led up to it. They had a fairly good core of young talent that matured and played just well enough to sneak into a wildcard race and into the playoffs, and for that they deserve some credit. But the Marlins were very bad for several seasons before 2003, and merely okay in 2004; if the Marlins' world championship in 2003 was the result of brilliant management, why hasn't the management appeared brilliant in any other season?

The answer is, quite clearly, that every season, good or bad, is a mix of planning and luck. The Marlins planned decently for several seasons before 2003, then got quite a huge dose of great luck that year. The Urbina example is telling. The Marlins gave up a king's ransom to get him - including Adrian Gonzalez, a very good prospect, and two more marginal ones - after offering the same package to the Mets for Armando Benitez, a better reliever than Urbina who, as it turns out, didn't perform nearly as well as Urbina down the stretch. At the time, the Marlins' record was 47-45 and they were 4 1/2 games behind the Phillies and Diamondbacks in the Wild Card race.

Here are Urbina's numbers in 2003 and 2004:

2003 TEX 38 2/3 IP 41 K 18 BB 6 HR 4.19 ERA
2003 FLA 38 1/3 IP 37 K 13 BB 2 HR 1.41 ERA
2004 DET 54 IP 56 K 32 BB 7 HR 4.50 ERA

Which one of these is not like the others? Urbina is a good pitcher, but there is no way Beinfest could have known that he'd be spectacular with the Marlins before going back to being merely okay for the Tigers. There's no other explanation for what happened there than LUCK LUCK LUCK.

Let's say that in a hold 'em game, a player across the table from you abruptly pushes all-in despite not being short stacked. You have pocket aces, so you call and are thrilled when he flips over a 5-7 offsuit. Then comes the flop and it's 7-7-5. Does that mean that the player's all-in was a savvy move? Sure, it turned out nicely, but there's no way the player could have known the flop would turn out so well for him. He made a bad gamble, but it worked. He got lucky. It's clear to us when it happens in poker; why is luck treated so dismissively when it comes to baseball?

Another question first: if luck plays an important role in the way a baseball season turns out, how to we evaluate GM performance?

Let's say I flip a coin three times, and each time it comes up heads. Does this mean the coin is magical, that it's coming up heads as a result of mystical forces we can't see? Of course not; it's just a coincidence. Flip it a hundred more times, and you'll almost certainly get tails dozens of times. The more you flip it, the more likely it is that you'll get tails about 50% of the time.

Sorry for the elementary, and possibly condescending, little lesson, and feel free to skip the next couple paragraphs if you already know where I'm going with this, but I get the feeling that some people don't. The point is that in the case of coin flipping, and in the case of baseball, repetition tends to neutralize luck. This is why the Devil Rays can beat the Yankees a few times each year, but can't ever finish ahead of them in the standings. This is why a player can hit .450 in April, but not over the course of an entire year. And this is why any team can beat any other team in a short playoff series.

If the Devil Rays beat the Yankees three times out of five in July, no one except the Yankee faithful would blink an eye. Why, then, do baseball fans freak out and draw wild conclusions when an underdog wins three of five in a playoff series? It's because it appeals to our need to create narratives for ourselves to describe playoff baseball, which I find perfectly exciting even without the narratives. Such narratives give the results of the playoffs a kind of moral or even supernatural authority. Derek Jeter is a god in the eyes of many because of his playoff performances - and never mind the fact that he flopped badly in the 2004 ALCS against Boston.

To many fans, the playoffs have some mystical quality; some indefinable trait emerges in the hearts of one team, giving it the strength to come through when it matters most, and never mind that that trait often fails to show up in the very same players in later playoff series. And not only is there some indefinable trait that causes winners to win - let's call it "guts," or "moxie," or "clutch" - general managers should be able to identify that trait in a player before he exhibits it. It's impossible to predict in whom or when this trait will turn up, since the same players don't demonstrate it year after year. You only know after the fact - unless you're a major league GM, in which case you're praised or criticized for your ability, or lack thereof, to spot it. This is what Kovacevic's position amounts to, and it's basically a belief in magic. He criticizes Beane fans for buying into some sort of "mystique," but the mystique that Kovacevic buys into is far more pervasive, confusing and nonsensical.

Of course championships are what matter, but what courses of action are likely to result in championships? Here's a good one - field the best team possible and make sure it gets to the playoffs. After that it really is just five or seven games. They're five or seven really important games, but they're prone to unpredictable outcomes that are out of a GM's control. People seem to understand this concept intuitively when it's applied to a collection of five regular season games, but believe that something changes when the playoffs begin. There's no evidence that anything much does change. I don't see why this should make watching the playoffs any less fun. There are still heroes and great stories - it's just that the heroes are simply really good baseball players who happened to come through at the right time, rather than a bunch of superhumans whose hearts grew to twice their normal size and then returned to normal a week later.

The 2003 Marlins were a good team who will be remembered as a great one; there was a lot of luck involved their World Series victory, and I won't give much extra credit to Beinfest for it, since much of what happened was out of his control. He and Dave Dombrowski get credit for building a good team. They should be proud of that, and Beinfest should be thrilled about winning the series. Isn't that enough?

Now, back to an earlier question: how do we evaluate GM performance? And back to an earlier answer to a different question: over the course of a baseball season, or a career, repetition tends to neutralize luck. The more games are played, the more likely luck is to even out. The most important piece of evidence of GM ability is thus wins over time, which suggests that Beane is a better GM than Beinfest. Despite budget constraints, Beane's A's have won over 90 games five years in a row; Beinfest's Marlins have done so once.

This is, of course, a very simple way of looking at things, and we might also consider the logic of individual moves, as well as other factors, when assessing Beane's performance compared to Beinfest's. While Beane has certainly made some questionable moves, however - Scott Hatteberg's current contract comes to mind - this approach would make Beane look even better.

Still, for our purposes here, performance over time is a great place to start. While championships are, again, what matter most, Kovacevic has not proven that championships tell us more about how a GM performs than their performance in the regular season. He would rather judge Beane and Beinfest on seven total playoff series - less than forty games - rather than the thousands of games their teams have played since they took their jobs.

The suggestion that luck may have played a role in the Marlins' win frustrates Kovacevic ("Argh"!), and I'm guessing one reason why is that he doesn't even want to consider that luck has anything to do with GM performance, despite abundant evidence that it plays a major role in the success of a GM's team. Did Beinfest have some sort of special skill when he traded for Urbina that he didn't have when he traded for LoDuca? Of course not, it's just that one trade worked and another one hasn't, and the one that worked just happened to come in the context of a playoff run. But many fans would rather imagine that this isn't the case so that they can make a hero of Beinfest, or Derek Jeter, as a way of explaining a series of events and giving it power. The guys who simply do things right year after year, like Beane, don't fit so cleanly into the stories people want to remember. Beinfest is a decent GM, but Beane is a lot better, World Series title or no.

So, you may be wondering, what does this have to do with the Pirates? Nothing. They're terrible, man.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Mackowiak to Rays?

The Tampa Tribune reports that the Devil Rays are "dazed," confused and flummoxed by the recent retirements of Danny Bautista, Roberto Alomar and Marty Cordova. The retirements of these three below-average players should be a blessing in disguise and an opportunity for the Rays, who could give these players' at-bats to shortstops Jorge Cantu and B.J. Upton and outfielders Jonny Gomes and Joey Gathright, all of whom are better players than the ones they'll be replacing. It doesn't seem that the Rays want to do this, however. Here's a particularly stupefying sentence:

The blow can be absorbed with the presence Jorge Cantu, though LaMar was hesitant to hand the everyday job to the 23 year-old.

Memo to Chuck LaMar: The salary of your entire team is comparable to that of your division champion's third baseman. You must play 23 year-olds if you ever want to build anything lasting, and you should especially consider playing 23 year-old middle infielders who have already hit well at Class AAA and the big leagues.

In any case, the Rays are now looking for a new outfielder, and they're interested in Rob Mackowiak. This looks like a perfect match: the Pirates have something that the Rays shouldn't want but do, and the Rays have lots of something the Pirates should want - namely, young outfielders with pop and lots of upside. While the Pirates aren't likely to get Delmon Young or Elijah Dukes for Mackowiak, they might be able to get Jonny Gomes, who was recently (and inexplicably) sent to minor-league camp despite hitting 26 homers in less than 400 at bats at Class AAA in 2004.

Gomes isn't a Grade-A prospect: he won't hit for a high batting average because he strikes out as often as Craig Wilson would if he had to chug a beer every time Tike Redman misplayed a fly ball. And Tampa Bay's AAA park in Durham is very homer-friendly. Still, Gomes might be a 25-homer player this year. Baseball Prospectus's PECOTA forecasting system thinks Gomes would hit .366/.491 in the majors in 2005. Say what you want about forecasting systems, but there isn't a single outfielder in the Pirates' minor league system, other than perhaps Nate McLouth, who even has the potential to slug .491 in a major league season.

Mackowiak has a nice player to have around, and he probably deserves a real shot at a starting job in center field or at third base, but he's not a massive upgrade over Tike Redman or Ty Wigginton. The Pirates already have plenty of backup infielders, and if they can grab an outfielder from the Devil Rays, they'll be set there, too. Of course, I don't know what the Rays would be willing to give up for Mackowiak, but if the Pirates can get a high-upside player like Gomes, they should do that deal immediately.

Thanks to Primer.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Duke Vs. Williams

There's a lot of buzz about Pirate prospect Zach Duke right now. While I don't want to break up the party, I'd like to suggest that it wouldn't be wise for the Pirates to give Duke a rotation spot to start the year.

Four of the five members of the Pirates' rotation will be Oliver Perez, Kip Wells, Mark Redman and Josh Fogg. That is certain. There are four pitchers in camp competing for the last spot: Albie Lopez, Ryan Vogelsong, Zach Duke and Dave Williams.

Lopez is a worse option at this point than Rick Reed was last year, and that's saying a lot. He was a marginal pitcher when he was in his heyday, and he's been out of baseball for a year. As fifth starters go, he's a last resort. And, fortunately, the Pirates have no need for last resorts right now.

Vogelsong was one of the worst starters in the majors last year, both from a statistical perspective and an I'm-gonna-throw-my-cup-through-the-TV perspective. This spring he has walked nearly as many as he has struck out. While it is often foolish to worry much about spring performances, Vogelsong's hardly inspires confidence. He was a scrub as a starter last year, and he'll probably always be one if he continues to start, no matter how many 95 MPH fastballs he throws. It would not surprise me if he became an effective reliever, however.

That leaves Duke and Williams. Duke is entering his age-22 season, he was one of the best pitchers in the minors last year, and he has been excellent this spring. There are lots of good reasons to get excited about him. He has never pitched in AAA, however. Last year, Jose Castillo was impressive in spring training, so the Pirates promoted him to the majors even though he had never played at AAA. The Pirates' decision to do this was defensible - with Freddy Sanchez on the shelf, the Pirates' only other reasonable options at second were Abraham Nunez and Bobby Hill. If it were possible to create a second base platoon in which one player did all the fielding and another did all the hitting, Nunez and Hill would have been perfect. Unfortunately, Second Base DH is not a position, so neither player was an adequate solution. So the Pirates called up Castillo, who was, predictably, a mess with the bat. Castillo showed promise but little in the way of results, and now he'll go to arbitration one year earlier.

The Duke-Williams situation is different from the Castillo-Nunez situation, in that Williams is actually a fairly good player. He had a downright excellent year at Nashville in 2004 and was effective in limited time with the Pirates. He was also a productive member of the Pirates in 2001 before he went down with a torn labrum, and it's worth pointing out that Williams' strikeout and walk numbers suggest that he is a much better pitcher now than he was then. He's not having a spectacular spring, but his ERA isn't astronomical and his K:BB ratio is solid.

I'm as excited about Zach Duke as anyone - he's worthy of all the press he's getting. But the Pirates stand to lose a lot by calling him up now. He could pull a Castillo and be ineffective. And no matter what happens, he'll definitely chew up service time and become expensive more quickly.

Even Dave Littlefield admits the Pirates aren't likely to contend this year. While the chances that Duke will become some sort of phenomenon and shut down the league are greater than the chances that Williams will, the Pirates will experience no long-term baseball benefit if that happens. And, most importantly, Dave Williams is actually a very good option as a fifth starter. The Pirates should leave Duke at Indianapolis for now and call him up when someone gets injured, or in June or July, after the time spent in the minors causes his arbitration timetable to be pushed back a year. If the Pirates called Duke up right now, they'd be doing it to excite the fans. Not only could that plan backfire if Duke flopped, it would involve sacrficing a chunk of the future for the present, and the Pirates can't afford that strategy anymore.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

Encarnacion Rumor

Please, no. Juan Encarnacion is the sort of player the Pirates have gone for lately - he's capable of putting up superficially impressive counting stats if everything goes right, but even if everything does go right, he's inadequate. He drove in 85 runs in 2002 and 94 in 2003, but forget about that: considering the parks he has played in, his best season was probably 2000 with the Tigers, when he hit .289/.330/.433. In 2002, he hit .271/.324/.449 in slightly more favorable hitting environments. He put up a .299 OBP last year.

Encarnacion doesn't even solve the Pirates' biggest outfield problem, which is center field. He hasn't played there since 2002. If he can't play center, he's not going to help much even if he improves on his godawful hitting the past two years; even during his best years, Encarnacion was only a few notches above replacement level for a corner outfielder. On defense, STATS Inc. says that he has the tools to be a good outfielder but that he takes bad routes and can't throw - stop me if you've heard that before. The Pirates would be just as well served by sticking with some combination of Tike Redman, Ben Grieve and Daryle Ward, despite those players' obvious shortcomings, rather than Encarnacion.

The other problem with Encarnacion is that he won't come for free - the Dodgers dumped him on the Marlins because he's owed about $4.5 million this year. The Pirates would probably have to pick up a big chunk of that contract, and they might have to give up a prospect too. I'm all for the Pirates spending money, but Encarnacion is not worth it. If the Pirates' advertising department just has to have a member of the 2003 World Champion Florida Marlins, I'm sure Lenny Harris can be had much more cheaply, and he'd only be marginally less useful than Encarnacion.

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Check out Mike Emeigh's depressing Pirates season preview here. It's good stuff.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Rumor/News Roundup

I've been absent for a week, and I haven't been able to watch any of the Pirates' games, but here are my thoughts on some of this week's news items.

Rowdy found this rumor roundup from CBS, which I'd usually never click on because it takes forever to load on my Lewinsky-era computer. There's some interesting stuff in there, though. First, the Pirates are interested in Mets pitcher Aaron Heilman and "may be" willing to trade Ryan Vogelsong for him. Riiiight. Heilman's no prize - he didn't improve in his third run through Class AAA last year - but if the Pirates can grab someone with any chance of becoming a useful starter for Vogelsong, I would hope they'd do that immediately.

The article also reports the Pirates have focused their gimme-an-outfielder-any-outfielder nationwide search on the Nationals' Terrmel Sledge, a functional lefty hitter who got a well-deserved shot in the big leagues in 2004 and did rather well, hitting .336/.462 with 15 homers in 398 at bats. He'll only be 28 this year, and unlike the Pirates' current corner options not named Jason Bay, he doesn't appear to be atrocious in the field, so he'd be worth a shot for the right price. I don't get the sense that Dave Littlefield has any idea what that price should be, but Nationals GM Jim "Cristian Guzman is worth TENS of MILLIONS" Bowden probably doesn't either.

I have a better idea, though. The article above also explains that the Reds might be willing to deal Wily Mo Pena for a starting pitcher. Grabbing Pena would be a huge coup for the Pirates: he's 23, he broke out last year, he has power, he has lots of upside, and he can play centerfield. In my opinion, the Pirates should consider trading any pitcher they have except Oliver Perez to get him.

In other news, Todd Ritchie retired. I feel bad reacting this way to the news that a former Pirate is switching careers and giving up his struggle with what must be tremendous physical hardship, but frankly, I'm glad the Pirates won't have the temptation to let him pitch for them.

Also, the Pirates cut a number of players this week. None of the cuts were particularly surprising, but I am surprised that Chris Duffy was not among them. Or, I'm surprised that since Nate McLouth was cut, that Duffy wasn't also. The Pirates probably figured they could keep an extra outfielder for a while, given that Jason Bay is currently dealing with a minor injury. But the Pirates' infatuation with Duffy is beyond my comprehension. He's not young, and he has very little power or plate discipline. He's not ever going to hit much at the big league level unless he undergoes some kind of serious transformation, and fast.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

J.R. House - Now With Nuance

I've had a bit more time to think about the J.R. House situation and I'd like to soften some aspects of the post below. I'll do my best to be objective, but I'm warning you: even at my most balanced, I can't talk about this move without also finding new ways of saying that the Pirates don't have any idea what they're doing or that they don't care about winning.

So, objectivity. Here's my full disclosure: I really like House. I want him to succeed. I grew up a Pirates fan; stopped paying serious attention in 1992 or so as I approached my teenage years, the Pirates stopped winning and Bobby Bonilla left; and then I returned to baseball in 2000 or so when a roommate sucked me back in. The Pirates were just as bad in 2000 as they are now, so guys like House, J.J. Davis, Aramis Ramirez, Bobby Bradley, and Sean Burnett - and then John VanBenschoten - were the future. They were among the few Pirates worth getting excited about. Over the last couple of years, it has been all kinds of frustrating to see these players' stars fade, implode or disappear due to horrible trades (Ramirez), injuries (Bradley, Burnett, VanBenschoten and now House), and outright neglect (Davis). Of the exciting young guys the Pirates had back then, the only one to live up to his promise in a Pirate uniform has been Craig Wilson, who was handled so stupidly during his first three years in the big leagues that he was perhaps more frustrating than any of the above.

So I apologize if I've been a bit harsh on Pirates management for what they've now done to House, especially since I didn't really do my research with regard to the reason why the Pirates were cutting him. House recently had surgery to repair a torn labrum and a partially torn rotator cuff. A poster at Honest Wagner just pointed out that a full recovery in time to compete for a job next season is unlikely. The poster also suggested that the Pirates' decision to cut House might have had to do with information about his medical history to which the Pirates have access and we do not.

I'll believe this last point when I see it - during the first couple of years I was a fan, I saw the Pirates make a number of moves I found inexplicable at the time, such as cutting Bronson Arroyo or playing Kevin Young instead of Wilson, and I thought, "Maybe they know something I don't." Usually, it turned out that the Pirates didn't know anything I didn't know, and that even a novice fan like myself could see how clueless they were. I'm not saying that I'm smart, even - just that it's clear that the Pirates under Dave Littlefield have made so many ridiculous moves that it seems unwise to assume they know anything that's not in the papers, unless real evidence to the contrary emerges.

All that said, House's shoulder is probably a huge mess right now. The torn labrum problem is an extremely messy one. It's not nearly as bad for hitters as it is for pitchers, but some of House's value stems from his ability to play catcher, and one important skill for catchers is the ability to throw the ball really hard to second. House had problems throwing runners out even before the surgery; in 2006 it would be pretty likely that Cecil Fielder could steal second off him.

Does this mean he can't or shouldn't play catcher? I don't know. Ideally, he wouldn't, but keep in mind that House plays for an organization that just 'solved' its catcher problem by acquiring a 40 year-old catcher who's thrown out only about twenty percent of the runners who have tried to steal on him the past two seasons. It's not at all clear that House would be worse in that area in 2006 than Santiago will be in 2005. If that's why the Pirates cut House, it's funny that they don't apply the same logic to players who are older, more expensive, and worse hitters. Meanwhile, much of House's offensive ability could stick next year.

I'm not saying that House is a great prospect, or that his hitting will continue to improve, or anything all that positive about him. But I don't need to. Keeping House around to try out for the team in 2006 would be, essentially, a $300,000 gamble. $300,000 is nothing in baseball terms, so if there's any upside at all it would have behooved the Pirates to keep House, since the downside is almost nonexistent.

Yesterday, Honest Wagner wrote:

For what they were going to pay House, the Bucs could hire eight secretaries to... do nothing but throw pencils at the ceiling. Or they could hire two pediatricians. Or they could hire three lawyers.

These observations seemed completely irrelevant and even sort of sweetly absurd to me at the time - after all, pediatricians won't ever help the Pirates win baseball games, and House might. But now I think Rowdy's words might be relevant in ways he didn't intend. After all, we've seen these cost-cutting moves before - Ramirez was traded for nothing, Jason Kendall was traded for very little, real free agents have been avoided, and so on. Even the 2003 Rule 5 fiasco may have been motivated by financial concerns.

As far as we fans are concerned, the Pirates might as well be using the money saved to hire secretaries to make holes in the ceiling. We won't see it. I imagine it'll be used on another car for the McClatchy family, or a new yacht for the Nuttings, or something along those lines. House isn't a great prospect anymore - everyone can agree on that. But here's something else we can agree on: he was released, and all his cheap years and upside were forfeited, for no other reason than to save three hundred thousand dollars. That's peanuts, per diem money. And that money will almost certainly not be used to help the team.

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.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Pirates Being Cheap Brats

You've probably heard by now.

Oliver Perez and Jason Bay both have less than three years of big-league service time, which means they aren't entitled to be paid any more than the major league minimum in 2005.

Many teams, including the Pirates, give some of their young players more than the minimum as a gesture of goodwill. For example, Tike Redman was paid $321,000, several thousand dollars above the minimum, to stink up the Pirates' lineup in 2004.

The issue, then, is not whether or not pay raises for players with no leverage is a good idea - the Pirates already give such raises. The issue is how lucrative these raises should be for Perez and Bay.

Under the current labor agreement, neither player has any leverage in negotiations, at least not as far as 2005 is concerned. Representatives of both players have expressed dissatisfaction at the Pirates' offers, however. It is their right to get petulant in haggling over salaries of players who already make about ten times what the average American makes in a year. Perez and Bay look slightly greedy and petty as a result, but it's their right to act that way if they so choose.

The Pirates look just as greedy, however, and worse, they look short-sighted. In the Kovacevic article linked above, Perez' agent Mike Fischlin points to Wade Miller's $525,000 contract in 2003 and Carlos Zambrano's $450,000 contract in 2004. The Pirates are currently offering Perez $381,000, which presumably means that Perez and the Pirates are less than $100,000 apart.

To any major league team, even a cheap one like the Pirates, $100,000 is chump change. $100,000 is two innings of Jose Mesa. I don't doubt that Perez and his agent will be inclined to seek a big payday once he becomes a free agent, but if he's happy in Pittsburgh, he'll surely think harder about the hometown discount contract the Pirates will surely offer him if he continues to pitch well. If the cost of a chunk of that happiness is only $100,000, that would be money well spent. Perez and Bay are two of only a few reasons to be excited about the future of the Pirates. They aren't entitled to ask for much, and they don't seem to be asking for much. Pay them.

UPDATE: In the comments, Ryan suggests that my original "Pirates Lowballing Perez, Bay" headline wasn't really accurate. I don't know of anyone who has done a coherent analysis of what sorts of salaries Bay and Perez should expect, but Ryan is probably right. I used the word carelessly - I meant it more as shorthand for "the Pirates are cheap," and didn't mean to suggest that the Pirates' offers were low compared to what we might expect. The bottom line is that $100,000 isn't a lot of money, and if that's the problem, just give Perez and Bay the $100,000. Perez and Bay are acting like jerks, but they're the future of the Pittsburgh franchise. If it only costs $100,000 to placate them, then do it, regardless of what they should expect to get.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

The Kendall Effect

The Stats Geek offers an analysis of how the loss of Jason Kendall is likely to affect the Pirates' offense.

Although I agree with the main idea of the article - that the Pirates didn't score many runs last year and aren't likely to score many this year - I must take issue with a few points.

Much of the article focuses on the horrible 2004 performances of Randall Simon, Chris Stynes and Abraham Nunez. Since the three combined to hit .216/.269/.299 last year, the Stats Geek reasons that "Offense should be regained, however, by replacing Nunez, Stynes and Simon with Freddy Sanchez, Ty Wigginton and Daryle Ward."

The problem with this reasoning, I think, is the assumption that just because Simon, Stynes and Nunez aren't on the team anymore, the Pirates won't endure any of those sorts of performances from anyone.

Here are the Terrible Trio's 2003 stats:

Simon: .276/.309/.434
Stynes: .255/.335/.413 (in Coors Field)
Nunez: .248/.310/.357

They weren't exactly Pujols, Rolen and Edmonds. But Simon, Stynes and Nunez also weren't nearly as bad in 2003 as they were in 2004. It's not as if what the Pirates got from them in 2004 was what they expected. We thought they'd be bad, but not that bad. (Similarly, we thought Jason Bay would be good, but not that good.) When you trot a bad player like Randall Simon out there, the results are always pretty nasty - but when you trot him out there and he starts losing the skills he had, things can get really nasty.

Let's look at the 2004 statistics of the Pirates who will replace them.

Benito Santiago: .274/.312/.434
Matt Lawton: .277/.366/.421
Ty Wigginton: .261/.324/.433
Daryle Ward: .249/.305/.474

Compare Santiago's 2004 to Simon's 2003, then remember that Santiago is forty years old and smack in the middle of a steroid crackdown, and tell me if you'd be surprised if he had a Simon-like collapse in 2005.

Then consider Ward's 2003 season, in which he hit .183/.211/.193 and was far worse than any of the Pirates' 2004 trio, and tell me whether it would be shocking if he pulled a Simon in 2005.

On offense, Lawton and Wigginton have always been a cut above Stynes or Nunez, but consider that Lawton is old and has injury problems, and that Wigginton has never been a very good player.

Then consider that Santiago, Lawton, Wigginton and Ward are likely to get a lot more than the 562 plate appearances that Simon, Stynes and Nunez got in 2004.

The Stats Geek writes, "The Pirates enter 2005 in no danger of suiting up Abraham Nunez, Chris Stynes or Randall Simon." With all due respect, I disagree. When you trot out old, mediocre players like Santiago and Lawton, or even relatively young, mediocre players like Ward and Wigginton, you run the risk of a fiasco if they collapse. I'm not saying any one of these players will collapse, just that they could, and it would be foolish to plan on those players maintaining their established levels.

Speaking of which, the Stats Geek shows how Kendall will replace Lawton by using their career leadoff numbers, which are as follows:

Kendall: .326/.409/.402
Lawton: .299/.380/.480

The trouble is that Kendall's line looks similar to his 2003 and 2004 stats, while Lawton's does not resemble any year he's had recently. Lawton hasn't come near a .380 OBP since 2001. And he has never posted a .480 slugging percentage in a season. (He had a .478 SLG as a 26 year-old in 1998.) Lawton won't come close to replacing Kendall in 2005.

Moreover, all these considerations about the Pirates' offense don't take defense into account, and Lawton, Wigginton and Santiago represent a massive net decline from Simon, Stynes and Kendall on defense.

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