Saturday, March 20, 2004

Sweet

VanBenschoten beat the Yankees today, going three (Burnett pitched the fourth and fifth) against a Yankees team that threw these guys at him: Lofton, Posada, A-Rod, Giambi, Sheffield, Matsui with scrubby Cairo, E. Wilson, and pitcher Kevin Brown in the 7-9 spots. VanBenschoten and Burnett combined for five shutout innings (well, one unearned run), struck out five, and gave up three hits and two walks.

Send Oliver Perez to Nashville

Neck and neck and neck and neck. That's how McClendon describes the competition for the fifth starter job between Reed, Vogelsong, VanBenschoten, and Burnett. Some of this is theater, I suspect, to keep VanBenschoten and Burnett in the press and remind the fans that help is on the way.

The Bucs would probably like to start 2005 with Wells, Perez, and some combination of VanBenschoten, Burnett, Vogelsong, Dave Williams, and/or a veteran or two off the free agent market. VanBenschoten and Burnett need a full year at Nashville, I think, after starting 17 and 27 games at Altoona in 2003. Dave Williams will start for Nashville this year.

I don't think Oliver Perez has earned a rotation spot this spring, especially after he went to Mexico this offseason to pitch his heart out for Tomateros de Culiacán. The Pirates preferred that he not pitch in winter ball, but they consented as they learned of the "enormous pressure" he felt to pitch in his home country. Lots of things feel like enormous pressure to 22-year-olds. When I was 22, I felt enormous pressure to do all kinds of stupid things. Something about Perez's decision sends up a huge red flag for me. Is he that weak, mentally, that he cannot stand up to such pressure, and will jeopardize his career and, more important, the good of the Pirates, so he can look good to his friends back home? Does he take his place in the Pirates' staff for granted? Seriously, would he pull that stunt as a member of another team? Any way you spin it, I can't see how the decision sends a message to Pirates fans that Perez wants nothing more than to help Pittsburgh make the playoffs in 2004.

But that's not all. Since he threw his balls off for a month this winter, and since he's a 22-year-old, he really ought to be on a strict pitch count this season. Even if he turns things around, and stops doing this, a closer look at his career stats suggests he's not ready. In 216 big-league innings - roughly a full season for a good 6 1/2 inning starter - Perez has walked 125 batters and given up 35 home runs. The 235 Ks are nice, but let him succeed on a more consistent basis before you hand him a starting job. The Bucs should start Perez at Nashville and tell him they want better control and fewer long balls. And limit that pitch count. I'm not a huge fan of strict pitch counts in the big leagues, but when the player has control problems and wastes so many pitches throwing balls, I think it makes sense to do whatever you must to force the player to have more respect for the value of each and every pitch. If you waste money, you should make and respect a budget. If you waste pitches, you should respect a pitch count.

Remove Perez from the Pirates' rotation and the Bucs are a bit stuck in the short-term. By all means, if Vogelsong stays sharp, give him the job. He started 26 games at Nashville last year. If he looks ready, he should have a spot on the big-league roster this spring. That will send a strong, positive message to Burnett, VanBenschoten, and Oliver Perez. Take care of business at Nashville, and you'll have an inside track for a spot in Pittsburgh. Make them earn it each step of the way.

The longer the Bucs hold onto Kris Benson, the easier it will be to ensure stability in the development of the Nashville staff. If Rick Reed can get make three starts in the second half of April, the first on April 11, the Bucs will be fine with Benson - Wells - Fogg - Vogelsong - Reed. If Benson is traded for prospects, or if someone gets hurt, call on my main man Brian Meadows. He's only 28. Perhaps he's on the Esteban Loaiza career path (a top comp for Meadows on Forman's site). He's never been that good, but his value for the Bucs as a starter in 2004 would mainly reside in his ability to keep the Nashville boys in Nashville. If Meadows bombs - I mean really sucks - Salomon Torres can start here or there. If all hell breaks loose, the Bucs can trade an outfielder to St. Louis or Los Angeles for someone like Danny Haren or Wilson Alvarez. Or they can deal Randall Simon back to the Cubs for Juan Cruz. It's not like the Pirates will start the season low on trade bait, and plenty of teams have arms to spare in the first half of the season.

Friday, March 19, 2004

Boring?

my mother told me as a boy
(repeatedly) ‘Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no

Inner Resources.’ I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
-- Huffy Henry

That’s what comes to mind when I read the outrage which is this essay.

If you're an baseball analyst, and a team bores you, shouldn't you be looking for another job? Is that not an admission of failure? Or slackery? Or a lack of Inner Resources?

More on this later, maybe.

Kris Benson v. The Golf Cheat

Kris Benson can't get out of a pirate uni fast enough. Was it something the buccos said? Scoopdaddy sez it's not what the bucs said but what The Golf Cheat did (or wouldn't do) back in 2001. Think back to the dark days under The Golf Cheat's reign. He holds off giving KB a longterm deal, finally relents, and then, two days later, elbow discomfort due to a mysteriously "high mound" at the Twinkies camp in Ft. Myers. Just another case of bad luck for the buccos, right? I posit that KB's elbow had been hurting him long before, and had The Golf Cheat not given KB's money to Pat Meares and OpShut, maybe he would have spoken up about it sooner and not tried to pitch through it. Who can blame him for keeping quiet? Who's going to sign a pitcher with a sore elbow to a longterm deal? Simple attribution theory has led KB to one conclusion: the buccos hurt my arm in what should have been my prime. KB might not win a cy young like Peter Gammons predicted but it will be hard to watch him win 17 for the Diamondbacks.

Wins Poll

There's a poll up at the Trib-Review site. I laugh to see "85 wins or more" as the most optimistic option, and only 11% choosing that option. The front office has done a good job of managing expectations, and this bodes well for positive free media and fan growth down the line. If the Pirates don't win, no one will notice, and there's no news to report. If they start winning, and they will start winning again at some point, then everyone will be surprised, there will be a lot of news to report and follow, and there will be a surge in ticket sales and national interest.

I voted 85 wins or more.

Thursday, March 18, 2004

Kendall Rumors

From Dave Pinto, we see that Mariners Wheelhouse has a series of interesting posts, from the Seattle point of view, on Ken Rosenthal's new thing about the interminable Kendall rumors. I like Kendall, and wish him well, whatever happens. I wouldn't be surprised if the Bucs are asking for some of the guys on this list, and offering to eat an amount of salary that has everything to do with which guys the Mariners will give up. I would be surprised and disappointed if they took Kevin Jarvis and Wiki Gonzalez for him. Also interesting is Rosenthal's word that the Bucs are going after Keith Ginter. I'd rather get Bill Hall.

6 for 6

From today's PG:
Plans are progressing to have a ring ceremony soon for the minor-league clubs that won championships last year. All six of the minor-league teams made the playoffs last season, and T-shirts have been issued that read "6 For 6" on the sleeve. "It's one of those things that's a pat on the back and also shows the next group about the worth of extra effort," Littlefield said.
Littlefield sounds like George Babbitt when he talks about the worth of extra effort, but seriously, this is good news. (And how can I get one of those shirts?) The Bucs are winning big-time in the minor leagues right now. I also love the idea of scheduling regular-season games for Altoona and Williamsport in PNC Park. Dick Groat, Wally Backman, Johnny Hopp, Paul Waner, Kiki Cuyler, Ginger Beaumont, and Jake Stenzel all had six-hit games for the Pirates, according to this almanac. That's an awesome feat. Of course Rennie went 7-for-7, and I think about that every time my neighbor stands on his porch yelling "Rennie! Rennie! Rennie!" as his disobedient toy dog shits in the prize hostas.

Will Carroll and Baseball Prospectus

From Monday's Team Health Report at Baseball Prospectus:
But as much as I root for this franchise to turn it around, I've yet to see anything resembling a plan.
Nothing "resembling" a plan? Hyperbole is the curse of Buc punditry these days. Keep looking, Will. We see the plan. I'm not sure why no one at BP sees it too. I have a guess, based on an answer in Keith Woolner's recent chat:
We strongly support the trend of increasing use of objective metrics in MLB front offices. We're in favor of better baseball on the field. In terms of BP's professional services with MLB clubs, we do have several engagements with clubs, and we're happy and fortunate to say the number is growing all the time, including the addition of a new club this last week. However, out of respect to our clients and contractual obligations, we don't focus on those engagements on the web site.
Are the folks at BP attempting to leverage their wonderboy status into an engagement with the Pirates? "You guys suck, and until you pay us or follow our advice, we'll continue to say you suck." Two points to make now. One, if no one in the league can see Littlefield's plan, more power to him. We can discuss it in 2005 or 2006 when we see that it worked (or didn't work). He's not a moron and there is more than one way to gain a competitive advantage through innovations in strategy. Not everyone has to follow the A's model and, more important, now that many teams are, much of that advantage is lost. Two, I love BP and have been an avid and regular reader for years now. I know every book since the Beltre one cover-to-cover. But that won't stop me from calling them out when they write such things about one of the league's oldest franchises.

Bay or Davis, Wilson or Castillo

One more post on Emeigh's pre-season essay at Baseball Primer.

Emeigh argues:

There's no obvious reason why Jason Bay should be getting a shot ahead of JJ Davis or Tony Alvarez , or Jack Wilson should continue to play SS while Jose Castillo gets moved into a competition with Bobby Hill and Freddy Sanchez (in which he's running third).
This strikes me as hyperbolic - sure there are a few obvious reasons why to go with Bay and not Davis, Wilson and not Castillo. When the Pirates acquired him, Bay was a 24-year-old Andre Thornton clone who just put up a 958 OPS on 300+ at-bats in AAA. J.J. Davis, who is the same age as Bay, was clobbering the ball in AAA himself, finishing his Nashville tour with a 898 OPS on 400+ at-bats. Both these guys look ready for primetime, but Bay came over in the Giles trade, and the fans would like to see him now. That may not be the best reason, but it is an obvious one.

Jose Castillo or Jack Wilson? Castillo is 23 and he couldn't slug .400 at Altoona last year. His defense at second base was not good, either. Jack Wilson is 26, he has a slick glove at short, and he has 1500 major-league at-bats under his belt. He will cost the Pirates 1.85M this year. The Bucs could save about 1.5M by handing the job to a healthy minor-leaguer like Jose Castillo, but if the minor-leaguer flops (we have horrors of Chad Hermansen burned into our mind - remember that), where are we going to find a suitable replacement? Castillo is a guy who hasn't hit better than Wilson in the minors, and his defense is not as good. As a team that is developing a group of young pitchers, why take a chance with a player whose defense has been shaky in the minor leagues? Also, if Wilson improves a little bit, and stays healthy, he may also be attractive at the trade deadline.

The Pirates have a ton of quality minor-league ballplayers, but that does not mean that the successful rebuilding strategy is to promote them all to the major leagues and give them playing time that they haven't yet earned. Play Wilson, play Cota, play Davis, play Castillo, start the young ones. If the Bucs were to heed every call to ditch the vet for the young guy, we'd have a junior-varsity squad on the field, and the results could only be disastrous in the short-term. Is mass humiliation the quickest way to develop a team of young ballplayers? Has that ever worked?

Maintaining the Illusion of Competitiveness

Here's another line from Emeigh that I take issue with:
the Pirates have become focused on maintaining the illusion of competitiveness on the field, to the point that the team has become the most risk-averse organization in baseball
Let's take the last part first. The most risk-averse organization in baseball? Maybe, but maybe not. I don't think it is risk-averse to focus draft after draft on young pitchers, or to take John Vanbenschoten - a power-hitting prospect - and make him a pitcher. (FWIW, some of PECOTA's comps for JV in 2004 include Charlie Lea, Jim Clancy, A.J. Burnett, Jack Morris, Jason Schmidt, Pete Vukovich, Kip Wells, and the great Dock Ellis.)

Now the first part: maintaining the illusion of competitiveness? The Pirates have won 69. 62, 72, and 75 games the last four seasons. What is competitive? .500? I think they've been better than people are saying. Not great, or even good, but close to average, and, most important, improving.

I think it was Chris Kahrl who said, in one of BP's Transaction Analysis columns last year, that the Stairs / Simon / Sanders / Lofton signings made them "brazenly mediocre." I think that is a more accurate description of the short-term strategy while we wait on the minors to produce some everyday players.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

The Long-Term View of Things

Mike Emeigh wrote a solid preseason evaluation essay for Baseball Primer. If I have the time and the stomach for it, I'll go over the recent and less worthy examples of the genre in more depth later.

Everything is good, genuine, and mostly original, except this conclusion, which I don't share:

But there's a part of me, deep down inside, that hopes that all of the veterans tank, the fans stay away in droves, and McClatchy decides to sell the team to someone who is willing to take a long-term view of things.

First of all, it ain't right to hope the Bucs tank so there can be a change in ownership. If you are wishing for a change in ownership, why not wish for that? Why you gotta wish them evil to boot? Why not

But there's a part of me, deep down inside, that hopes to win the Powerball lottery not once but twice, and hopes that Kevin McClatchy will sell the team to me. Then I can implement some policies that articulate my long-term view of things.
Emleigh doesn't see that the Bucs are taking a long-term view of things.

I would sum up the failures of Cam Bonifay with one player: Chad Hermansen. The Bucs burned up his options, yanking him on and off the big-league roster in a series of melodramatic tantrums. He was the hope and the hell, the future and the failure. Prince and goat. He never had a chance to settle in, and he lost the confidence and consistency that once made him a top prospect. The guy was a mess when Bonifay left, and he was young enough and talented enough that I put a lot of blame on his impatient handlers.

Under Littlefield, the Buccos have been much more patient with the minor leaguers. Signing cheap veterans not only brings in the fans that want better-known players, it also buys time for the prospects to develop in the minors. The lesson of Hermansen was: let them grow into a big-league job after settling in, and suceeding at, each level of the minors.

Everyone abuses Littlefield for not having a plan, or not finding a way to work toward long-term success while dealing with short-term exigencies. I think they are wrong, and so long as McClatchy will stand by Littlefield and give the minor leagues time to produce starting big-leaguers, I think Littlefield has a pretty good chance of making them eat crow in 2005 or 2006.

Prospects

Ted Nye has the consensus rankings. Older browsers might not be able to load that nutty xml. (Thanks to Sean Forman at Primer for calling our attention to it.) If today's Paul Meyer Q&A reflects what McClendon and Littlefield are thinking, we may see an end to the crazy talk about putting J.J. Davis on waivers.

Jackass

Words fail me. Take this guy behind the wall and beat him with a barrel stave.

Mondesi

Raul Mondesi will like being a Pirate if Mac can bring back that family feeling in the clubhouse. Mondesi had a good point when Carlos Tosca benched him in late June 2002 for coming late to a meeting:
"He comes to me like, 'You're late again.' I told him, 'Why didn't you call me yesterday? I was sick. Nobody called me to see how I feel. Now I come in 10 minutes late and you don't play me?''' Mondesi said.

"I play this game too hard every day for this to happen to me. How come? Now he's trying to be too big. He only has two weeks being a manager in the big leagues. He never played professional. Why does he have to be like that with an everyday player for no reason. ... It's stupid."

Had Mondy had been a member of Willie Stargell's family, he could expect a little more love and comfort when he felt down and blue: some balloons, and maybe a singing clown to cheer him up. One of the old-timers should bring this up with Mac before the season starts. We don't want to do anything stupid.