The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wait 'Til 2011?

That’s the year that some baseball folks around here (including Rocco DeMaro, who does the postgame show on the radio, and, more notably, some in the front office) are tentatively pointing to as when the Pirates could maybe start competing. In the aftermath of the McLouth trade, my frustration was that the trade seemed to be an announcement that the Pirates had no intention of trying to compete before then*. Regardless, that’s the golden year, the one year where we will still have the best of our current pitchers (Duke, Maholm) as well as most of the coming talent. Here’s the best case lineup, if every minor leaguer progresses as he should (but assuming no miracle seasons):

G Hernandez, CF
A McCutcheon, LF
P Alvarez, 1B
R Doumit, C
J Tabata, RF
An LaRoche, 3B
S Ford, 2B
?????, SS

That’s pretty good looking, at least 1-6. However, it’s assuming a little bit that Tabata and Hernandez both make it by then; it’s assuming a lot that both will contribute as rookies; it’s assuming unrealistically that both will come north with the team, as opposed to being late May callups (the Longoria/Wieters rule of arbitration-delay should hold). With that in mind, suddenly this lineup doesn’t look much better than today’s, does it? Cutch should be better, but he’s already been so good, I don’t think you can project too much more from him (maybe some more pop). Alvarez should be fine as a rookie (and, again, I’m not convinced he’s with Pittsburgh from April, unless he breaks out big time in 2010), but I don’t know that you can really project him, in 2011, as better than Adam LaRoche today (plus his glove will be worse). Doumit is Doumit (if he’s healthy), LaRoche will maybe show a bit more pop, and that’s it. Ford will obviously be a downgrade from Sanchez, no one in the system represents an upgrade from Wilson at SS, and I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a free agent signing who would be an upgrade, either (maybe someone with more bat but less D, which I’m calling a wash on a team without strikeout pitchers). So, in 2011, the offense is about where it is now, albeit with upside.

B Lincoln
Z Duke
P Maholm
C Morton
R Ohlendorf

There’s lots of guys we can slot in 4-5, but they’re all about what you get with Morton and Ohlendorf – credible, major league pitchers, but not much more. From what Dejan has written, I don’t think they’ll be able to keep Lincoln away, so let’s assume he comes up in 2010, gets his growing pains out of the way, and is prepared to be an ace in 2011. Duke and Maholm, who knows, but let’s pretend that, unlike Gorzo and Snell (and Cordova and Benson and…), they’re for real.

It’s a credible, even good, rotation, and a semi-credible offense, plus an excellent defensive outfield. Is it a much better team than 2009? I don’t see it. I mean, there’s clearly more talent, but I think it’s extremely unrealistic to imagine that a lineup that’s 50% rookie will have no growing pains: if any of Tabata, Hernandez, or Alvarez pull an Andy LaRoche, that alone drags the team below 2009 performance. But 2011 is probably when we crack .500.

Meanwhile, in 2012 we lose Duke and Maholm. Bryan Morris and Jeff Locke, fruit of the Bay and McLouth trades respectively, could be ready by then, but will be 25 and 24. It’s hard to imagine both of them stepping in and becoming 2-3 starters. That said, all of my caveats above about the offense should be resolved by 2012. So call it a wash with 2011. 82 wins again.

Finally, we reach 2013, about as far as we can project. Feeling positive, I’ll grant that the offense is hitting on all cylinders – we’ve either drafted a stud SS or, heartened by 2 years of decent baseball, Huntington opens the checkbook for a solid FA – and Morris and Locke both pan out, staying healthy. I can finally see a team that can not only compete, but actually look like a division favorite. But there’s an awful lot to go wrong between then and now. And, more important, I’m not convinced that 2011 and 2012 look so much better than 2009’s team, a team that all the cool kids agree sucks.

When does Steelers Training Camp start in 2012, anyway?

* McCutcheon has been, not surprisingly, a great substitute for McLouth, but that ignores the gaping hole that is Brandon Moss in RF – Cutch could have come up and McLouth could have slid over, and that would have been an improvement. Meanwhile, Charlie Morton is, to date, nothing more than John van Benschoten, Jr. He may well turn out to be more, but it’s foolish to look at a guy with mixed success in the minors (he was rarely more than mediocre in A and AA ball) and one terrible stint in the majors as a significant pickup.

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What’s the Prognosis, Doctor?

When the Dave Littlefield era mercifully came to an end two summers ago, everyone agreed the organization was a mess. Talent evaluation had failed, player development had failed, and a poor major league club was backed up with a barren minor league system. Other than Andrew McCutcheon, not a single impact player was on the horizon. New team president Frank Coonley and GM Neil Huntington started to rebuild, a four-letter word in Pittsburgh, where rebuilding commenced in 1993 and has never ceased. Nonetheless, disgust with Littlefield opened a window – the fan base could swallow a little directed action.

Unfortunately, Huntington – a man who, in the comically bad Torres trade and the unceremonial dump of Jose Bautista, not to mention his intemperate remarks about Snell, has shown a clear willingness to act based on emotion and pride* - misunderstood what he had. Recognizing that the minors were devoid of talent, Huntington determined that the major league club represented little more than trade bait for a restocking the farm system. As a result, when the outfield in 2008 coalesced into the best in baseball, he didn’t spend a moment thinking about how to build on that; he saw players to be traded, and now that outfield is all gone.

But the 2008 team wasn’t very good, despite that outfield, right? Actually, the 2008 team was – as I said at the time, in various online fora – two mediocre pitchers away from 85 wins. Last year I mined all sorts of game-by-game results to show that the combination of Matt Morris, Tom Gorzelanny, and the awful revolving cast of AAA callups were responsible for more than 2 dozen games in which the Pirates had almost literally no chance to win – games in which the starter gave up 5 or more runs by the 5th inning, often leaving early and severely overtaxing a bullpen that, at the back end, was as good as any in baseball. This year I don’t need to do that to make my point, because this year, with the same 3 core starters (Maholm, Duke, & Snell), plus two mediocre pitchers, the team’s runs allowed total has gone from a breathtaking 884 runs in 2008 to a projected 714 in 2009. Meanwhile, the 2008 offense was on pace, before the Bay trade, to score 800 runs. 800 runs scored plus 714 runs allowed projects to a season win total of 90.

90. Can you comprehend that, Pittsburgh?

Now, all things are never equal, and you can’t simply assume that the April-July of Bay, Nady, and McLouth could be duplicated by Bay, McLouth, and Morgan. But I think it shows, pretty clearly, just how close the Pirates actually were. I would argue that, with only 2 changes made, the Pirates would be in or near first place, several games above .500, right now, and without having mortgaged their future.

Change 1: Don’t trade Bay, obviously. In terms of PNC Park impact, you put Bay in RF, keep the dynamic Morgan/McLouth/McCutcheon LF/CF combo (I don’t even care if they trade McLouth). No Bryan Morris, but that’s a maybe for 2012, not something I’m putting too much weight on. Craig Hansen has had no impact on the team, and at best is a replaceable bullpen piece. But then there’s Andy LaRoche, which brings us to…

Change 2: Sign a free agent 3B in the offseason. Now this is the tricky part. There were not a lot of decent FA 3Bs last year – Joe Crede, Jerry Hairston, Mike Lamb, and Ty Wigginton are the cream of the crop, which is pretty crappy cream. But neither Hairston nor, particularly, Crede would represent much of a step down from LaRoche, nor would they have cost much money, nor would either be blocking Pedro Alvarez or, I suppose, Neil Walker.

With those two changes, the Pirates are a much better team in 2009 – statistically, they would almost certainly be in first place (Bay is worth at least 10 runs so far over Moss, and we’ll call 3B a wash; that would put our Runs Scored/Runs Allowed ratio at 345/330, which is better than anyone in the NL Central has shown). And they are no worse down the road, except possibly in 2012 or 2013 when Morris is scheduled to arrive.

Most important, if the Pirates were winning this year (and if they hadn’t traded Bay last year), PNC Park would be packed. Easily averaging over 20k/game (that’s what they did in 1997, at 3 Rivers). Increasing revenues before the magic year of 2011. Completely changing the perception of them around baseball. Even if Bay leaves after 2009 (and, in this economy, I bet he’d take a hometown discount for a suddenly-contending Pirates), 2010 represents at worst a step backwards, and 2011 a fulfillment of 2009’s promise.

Instead, it’s wait ‘til next year year after that (maybe). And all because Neil Huntington saw a sprained ankle and decided to shoot the horse.

* in the Torres trade he evidently decided that a player who had clashed with previous management must be a problem, and traded a closer-grade pitcher on a good contract for the proverbial bag of balls; in the Bautista trade, he decided he’d rather have a mediocre player that he’d acquired than a mediocre player he’d inherited – not indefensible, but not exactly shrewd

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For Want of a Busy Signal

[This post is #2 of 4 that I wrote all together yesterday, before the latest trades. I was planning to space them out a bit, but time is of the essence. FWIW, other than this note, all of the content in this post and the two following was written before the Morgan/Burnett trade came down]

I’m increasingly seeing the Bay trade as the worst thing that’s happened to the Pirates since Dave Littlefield lost his mind.

Dejan Kovacevic of the Post-Gazette likes to note that, last summer, the consensus was that the Bay trade was the good one, and the Nady trade the bad one. But that’s not how I saw it at the time. I understood all the reasons to trade Nady, although I liked the guy. I was a bit let down to see Marte go, but 2 major league starters, plus the maybe-stud of Tabata, seemed like a good return. Frankly, the Pirates – not the organization, but the team – looked stronger on July 30 than they had a week before.

2008 was still a lost cause – too many starts by Morris, Gorzelanny, and the rotating disaster that was the #6 starter had squandered baseball’s best offensive outfield, and #3 offense overall – but the pieces were mostly in place for a solid 2009.

Then, just when it seemed that Jason Bay would, against all odds, remain in Pittsburgh, the Dodgers called the Pirates and Red Sox one minute before the trade deadline and upped their offer. It was done. The face of the team, their best hitter, was gone. In return, the Pirates got OF Brandon Moss, RHP Craig Hansen, 3B Andy LaRoche, and A-ball starter Bryan Morris.

Moss has been a bust, providing essentially replacement-level offense and defense in right field, one of the two easiest positions in baseball, especially at PNC Park. LaRoche, after an epically inept 2008, has become a solid young third baseman. Hansen has been hurt, and Morris has continued his history of injury - whatever his upside, he has to be considered an if, not a when.

In other words, to date, the Pirates have gotten Andy LaRoche for Jason Bay – a comically bad return for a guy who has been the best player on the American League’s best team. And why? Because Neil Huntington, in my opinion, badly misdiagnosed this team. And because, in this day and age, it’s too damn easy to make last minute phone calls.

[Update: I understated Moss' defense in this post; he has been comfortably above-average in the field. Nonetheless, his offense remains mediocre for RF, a position where late, fat Babe Ruth was stuck because he couldn't do too much harm out there. Moss remains on track for 4th OF status]

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It’s Easy If You Try

Imagine, if you will, that it’s the morning after the Penguins victory parade. A still-giddy Steel City picks up the paper and looks at the baseball standings for the first time since April, and spies the Pirates 3 games over .500, 2.5 games out of first place.

Not much of a fantasy? Well, it doesn’t have to be because, statistically, that’s about what should have happened. This Pirates team – the team of Ian Knucklehead, Brandon “Replacement Player” Moss, Adam “Icemay” LaRoche, and 20 sad games with Ramon Bixler at SS – has outscored its opponents thus far in 2009. On that day, the real life Pirates were 31-34, but they had outscored opponents 288-280, a rate that should correspond to an 82-80 final record, and, on June 17, could just as well have made the Pirates, say, 34-31.

Its not much of a stretch to think that that alternate reality – statistically more likely than ours – would have seen a surge of Bucs Fever in Pittsburgh. This town is desperate to see winning baseball, as the buzz over the Pirates’ 31-31 record a few years back will attest. They’re selling shirts in the Strip right now in the form of a Championship Checklist, with the Steelers’ and Penguins’ boxes duly checked in. What’s amazing to me is that there’s no snark attached to the next team on the list. It’s the Pirates, with an empty box – as if anyone in his right mind could hope to see it checked. But there it is, an emblem of a city that wants to believe.

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