Creeping Inexorably Toward A Worthwhile Sub-Heading.
Friday, March 05, 2004
Know Your Enemy - Part II - The Pirates
Blackbeard, Bluebeard, even Captain Morgan was hanging his head in shame. Pirates pillage, pilfer, and plunder. It's part of the job. But these Pirates of Pittsburg were being robbed blind. By Cubs. Arrrg!
In July of 2003, the Cubs called "parley," and the Pirates honored the request, allowing the team to board and neglecting to lock everything down. By the time they left, the Cubs had a starting third baseman, a leadoff man, and a platoon-mate for Eric Karros, leaving only a mediocre second-base prospect and a pony-keg as compensation.
For a team as cash-strapped as the Pirates, getting next to nothing for your cast-off veterans is a tremendous sin. Bad teams sign middling oldsters to pass them off for good swag in July, but the Bucs blew their shot at building their future. Where will their 2003 transgressions leave them in 2004?
Pittsburgh will be paying $1.75M for the privilege of letting Raul Mondesi patrol right field. I've covered a good deal of this in a previous post, but I'll state once again, there is nothing about this signing that is not a waste of resources. For some teams, $1.75M is chump change, but this organization isn't one of them. When there are cheaper, better options available in house, yet "name" mediocrities continue to be courted for their yummy bag of veteran pixie dust, the organization needs to take a long hard look at how they're doing business. There's more on this situation in "The Bench" section.
If the rest of the Pirates offseason is any indication, Chris Singleton will walk out of camp with the center field job, and Pittsburgh will continue to leave unanswered the question of what Tike Redman will be when he grows up. I'm not a Redman fan, but he's 27 and cheap and taking up space on their 40 man, so why don't they let him play and figure out if he's worth the roster spot?
Just for fun, I ran a couple of lineup projections based on who is likely to start for the club (thanks to Alex Ciepley for the nifty little toy), one with Redman in the leadoff spot, and one with Singleton at the top (I don't know that they'll be leadoff men, but they're as good a bet as anyone else since Jason Kendall eschews the job). I used the numbers contained in the 2004 PECOTA projections to power these simulations. Here's what it spit out:
Losing ten runs over the course of a year doesn't sound like a lot, but that's worth about one win. Not that one win will make a difference in Pittsburgh this season, but paying attention to these details is part of being a successful organization. Just think, if they could find ten run improvements at five positions, that could mean five wins, and while that still isn't enough to mean more than the difference between fourth and fifth place in 2004, thinking that way would pay dividends in the future. Too bad that's not what's happening here.
UPDATE:Welcome to me with egg on my face. I post this, and when I get around to looking at some baseball news this morning, I see that Chris Singleton was released. The report says he failed his physical, but no details regarding the reasons for failure were released. Even if Singleton was in stellar physical condition, this was right move to make.
At least Jason Bay is likely to start the year in left. Part of the Brian Giles deal along with Oliver Perez and well regarded lefty pitching prospect, Cory Stewart, Bay wasn't on anyone's radar until he got medieval on the PCL, posting a .303/.410/.541 line at AAA Portland. His 27 games in Pittsburgh at the end of the year implied it was no fluke, as he put up a .291/.423/.506 line in 79 at bats. That's not a lot of information to go off of, but Bay is 25 and if he's going to be worth something it's going to be right now, so the Bucs are finally doing the smart thing here and letting someone within the organization play.
Which brings us to another negative data point: first base. One would think that trading Randall Simon the first time would have shown Pittsburgh all the wonderful things that life could be, sans sausage. Yet, here he is again, bringing his smiling, rolly polly, Grape-Ape-sized strike zone to southwestern Pennsylvania. He brings very little of value to the table, and why anyone would choose him over pursuing Matt Stairs is beyond me.
Second base brings a little more happiness, as Freddy Sanchez joins the club as the only thing of worth garnered from the deadline deal that sent Jeff Suppan to the Red Sox. Sanchez is a fine prospect who John Sickels says profiles well defensively at second, and has a chance to be a batting champion someday. This makes Bobby Hill's inclusion as the player to be named in the deal that sent Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton to the Cubs all the more puzzling. It may work out for the best, though, as Sanchez' recovery from off-season surgery to remove a bone spur from his right ankle could last into May. There may be some question marks at the start of the year, but this looks to be one position where the Buccos are set for a while.
Another position that's locked up is shortstop. The Pirates are very happy with the wrong Wilson, as Jack is in the organization's good graces despite his obvious inability to hit. The one thing Wilson can do is field his position, although not nearly as well as hyped (his defensive numbers at BP put him right around league average). Inexplicably, he won his arbitration hearing, garnering $1.85M instead of the $1.4M the Pirates offered. It's another sign that the process is random, and the Bucs have two more years of this to look forward to, unless they decide to sign him to a longer-term deal. Neither idea sounds very good, but working with Wilson year by year makes more sense than binding your fate over a period of years to the hope that his bat will turn from styrofoam to wood.
Speaking of wood, Chris Stynes brings his glove of oak and bat of balsa to the Pirates' third base job, and unless Bobby Hill gets converted to the hot corner, he'll play there all year long. That's 130-140 games of scrappy, red-assed, wacky-batting-stance goodness. Get your season tickets now!
Jason Kendall is a fine catcher. His defense won't conjure images of the late-90's iteration of Ivan Rodriguez, but he's a solid choice for the second spot in the batting order, hitting for average, making good contact, and even taking the occasional walk. If he was making reasonable money, it's conceivable that he could end his career in the yellow and black.
Of course, his contract isn't reasonable, having been signed at the height of the salary boom. The $7.5M Kendall is owed this year is already too much for a thirty year-old slap-hitting catcher with over 9,000 innings on his knees, but it's nothing compared to the $9.5M, $10.5M, and $12.5M he's owed in 2005-2007. The Pirates have already been trying to get out from under this misguided example of front office largesse, but any suitors have been insistent that the Bucs pick up a significant amount of the tab, and thus far, Dave Littlefield has proved unwilling to eat $20M or more just to say he got something done.
He may not have a choice much longer. Kendall will be in another uniform by the end of the year; the Pirates just can't afford to keep him. But it will take a truly desperate team to pay more than half of this deal, and then the Pirates can't count on getting any usable talent in return. Littlefield's record in snagging minor league goodness for major league albatrosses hasn't been good of late anyway, so Pittsburgh fans should hope that someone out there opens their wallet.
There's no doubt this is the strength of the team.
These guys aren't world beaters, but they're five solid to good pitchers, with one in Kris Benson who has a good shot at beating his projection, and another in Oliver Perez who has a chance to be the leader of the staff one day. They aren't the Cubs or Astros, but this group has a chance to outproduce the other three staffs in the division.
Ryan Vogelsong is available in case someone goes down, but he isn't the man the Pirates want to see with the ball. He's a passable insurance policy, but if he gets more than 5-10 starts during the year, something has gone horribly wrong. In order for the Buccos to keep from embarrassing themselves, they need something approaching thirty outings from each of their starters. Help is on the way from the minors, but most of their young arms won't see PNC Park until 2005 or 2006, so these are the men who will have to do the job. No Cy Young Awards forthcoming this year, but I have to believe that teams like the Braves are looking at this staff with uncharacteristic envy.
This is going to be a bad bullpen. How do I know? Mark Guthrie should be the most reliable man out of this group. Tell a Cub fan Guthrie is his best reliever and you'll see someone with a month's worth of night sweats, and that's after you say, "just kidding." Don't believe me? Let's look at the career ERA+, garnered from the excellent baseball-reference.com, of the seven most likely Pirate pen-mates.
Gee, Derek, you're right. That isn't very pretty. But what about recent history? How did these fine gentlemen fare last year?
Well, here we go, but don't say I didn't warn you.
That's right, the two pitchers who performed the worst last year according to ERA+ are the two competing for the capital "C" closer job. What I really want to know is, what do the baseball gods have against Pennsylvania that they continue to blight her with Jose Mesa? Anyway, what is it I said before? Oh, yeah.
This is going to be a bad bullpen.
We've had grassroots movements to free Erubiel Durazo and Johan Santana, and now I think it's Craig Wilson's turn. Since coming to the Majors, he's done nothing but hit, yet the Pirates consistently refuse to give him the at bats he deserves. Admittedly, Wilson doesn't have a defensive position where he excels, but he can play either outfield corner or first base passably, and looking at a list of players who have blocked him or shared time over the last three years makes the blood boil.
Kevin Young, Rob Mackowiak, Armando Rios, John Vander Wal, Derek Bell, and Randal Simon have all been in Wilson's way at some point in the last three years. Not one of them has been superior to Wilson during that time, and now, on the cusp of a season when he could finally expect to get the playing time he deserves, the roadblock has been thrown up again, this time in the forms of Raul Mondesi and the second coming of the Sausage King.
Signings like this would be fine if Dave Littlefield didn't have a better, younger player around, and if he could be expected to trade the signees for something useful around the deadline. Of course, Wilson is younger and better, and Littlefield's record on flipping fungibles for goodies is uninspiring. Besides, short a crane and a giant, titanium pancake turner, I don't think flipping Randall Simon is physically possible.
If the rest of the Pittsburgh bench has a discernable function, it's to make the starters look less appalling, and as lofty as the goal may seem, this group is up to the task.
I've mentioned Bobby Hill earlier, and while he's got a shot at coming out of camp with the starting second base job, the question is what will happen when Freddy Sanchez is ready to go. If he stays with the team, he'll be the best bat off the bench besides Craig Wilson, and that might be the way to go with Hill. The other two options are to trade him, or let him learn third base. The first option won't garner anything in return, and the second, while interesting based on the team's talent base at the hot corner, doesn't fit well with Hill's skillset at the plate. Not that the Pirates have any legitimate alternatives. He's looking more and more like a tweener, and using him in a utility role might be the best thing for all involved.
Others in the infield mix include Rob Mackowiak, who isn't likely to go anywhere since he can play both infield and outfield, and Abraham Nunez. Mackowiak isn't great with the stick, but he's better than Jack Wilson, and he's the kind of player who's versatility can be useful as long as he doesn't get more than 200 at bats. Not the case with Nunez, though. He doesn't get on base, doesn't have power, and doesn't hit for average. He is hopeless at the plate, and the only thing that keeps him in a Major League job is the fact that he's the only player on the roster that can back up Jack Wilson at shortstop. He'll be on the team.
Daryle Ward continues to get jobs based on the hope that his failed prospectdom will turn into a story of redemption, like Seabiscuit or The Rookie or Happy Gilmore. Unfortunately, Ward's career is looking more like an episode of Gilligan's Island, and guess who's the Skipper? I wish I could say he'll get off the island, but like those crazy castaways, he just doesn't have what it takes. Although theoretically capable of playing the outfield, he's more physically suited to first base and the requisite thud-inducing fall to his right.
This year's designated catch and throw guy is Humberto Cota. Backup receivers don't mean much when Jason Kendall's around, since he tends to catch all but a handful of games. He may come into play if Kendall gets traded, though, and that means one less useful bat in the lineup. He's young and cheap, which is good, but if thrust into a full-time job, his benchiness will become more apparent than ever.
This team is really a mess. The organization's strength is in starting pitching, both at the major and minor league level, but everything else is hit and miss at best. Jason Bay and Freddie Sanchez seem to have the team's goodwill, but they are the only young position players who are so blessed. Those two could be part of the foundation of the next good Pirates team, but there are a lot of holes to fill, and with the organization's financial constraints, they will have to be filled with internal candidates, of which there are not nearly enough. Good drafts and savvy trades could get Pittsburgh a taste of success, but even doing all the right things won't bring that good team for a long time.