Saturday, March 27, 2004

Seattle scouting Kendall

The great Robert Dvorchak reports today that Seattle's chief scout is attending the Pirates' games. No doubt he's watching Kendall. What in the world should the Pirates get from Seattle?

They don't seem to need a starting pitcher. Even if Benson is moved, Vogelsong has the cobra clutch on a rotation spot. My wild fantasies about returning Fogg to high-leverage bullpen situations are probably just that, wild fantasies. Burnett looks ready to be the #5 guy, and Reed could get it together, and if not Meadows is available, so there's no need for an innings-eater. Not unless Josh Fogg is a bad way and management thinks it an awful idea to bring up the Golden Flash. Some bullpen help for now would be nice. What else should the Bucs target? Any kind of prospect for later - esp. perhaps someone with the stick for third base? If the Bucs don't have a lot of confidence in Cota, maybe a catcher, esp. someone who can work with young left-handers who walk too many and give up too many home runs. Depending on how much of Kendall's contract Seattle will take on, the Bucs may not have a lot of choice of players in return. I just hope they don't add overpaid dreck veterans and guarantee them playing time.

Friday, March 26, 2004

Walkin' Wilson stealing bases?

Attn fantasy players: Jack Wilson has two steals this spring. Is this a big deal? Maybe. If you play 5-by-5 fantasy baseball, the steal is a valuable thing, so you care about steals and you look for them under every rock. I may have some cut-rate steals for you. Lean in and listen close if this kind of thing gives you itchy palms.

I have a hunch the Pirates abused Jack, at arbitration, for his lousy basestealing judgment. In his career, he has eleven steals in 21 attempts. If I represented the team, I would bring this up at arbitration. That’s wretched. That hurts the team more than it helps. The kicker is this: there's no doubt that Jack is quick, so that’s not physical but mental ability that we see in the lousy steal rate. This is something he should be able to improve.

The consensus view of stat prediction people is that Wilson will finish 2004 with five steals. That’s an easy guess since he stole five in each of the last two years. In 2002, in the spring, he stole one base and got caught twice. He also made six errors in the field so perhaps Mac took him aside and said first things first, young man. He cut down on the steal attempts, finishing 2002 with five steals in seven attempts. In 2003, he made no attempts in the spring and finished the year with five steals in ten attempts.

The Bucs finished the spring of 2003 with fourteen steals. This spring they have eighteen to date, so they are running a bit more as a team. Mackowiak has two steals. When he plays, he tries to run. Nothing new there. Redman has two steals in three attempts; we expect him to run when he plays too.

Jack Wilson and Bobby Hill also have two steals in two attempts this spring. They are also competing for the number two spot in the batting order. Is this a sign that whoever wins that job will run more than the fantasy predictors predicted? Or has Jack Wilson identified his base-stealing skills as one of the negatives he wants to turn into a positive?

Either way, it bears watching if you play fantasy baseball and are looking for unexpected steals. In 2002, Pokey Reese stole two bases in the spring and finished with twelve; Kendall had two and finished with fifteen. In 2003, Mackowiak and Reese got three in the spring and finished the season with six each on very limited playing time. Lofton had two and finished the season with 30. If Jack Wilson makes two attempts for every fifteen hits and walks and finishes the season with 140 hits and 40 walks – I think those are safe, conservative estimates – that would produce 24 attempts and, we hope, at least a little better than twelve stolen bases. Keep an eye on quick Jack’s feet and see if he isn’t working to shed his reputation as a moron in the steal department.

Final cuts

Joe Rutter has a good run-down of the possible final cuts. I predict Davis and Cota grab the last two roster spots. With Kendall perpetually on the trade market, it makes sense to head north with two and a half catchers.

Oliver is in, Vogelsong is up

Both Robert Dvorchak of the Post-Gazette and Joe Rutter of the Tribune-Review now report that Oliver Perez gets a free pass with the spring stats because he's making adjustments requested by his coaches. Could these articles be more timely? Don't let anyone bad-mouth the work of the Pittsburgh media.

There's no plan to develop him further in the minors:

In his recent sessions on the side, Perez has been working on staying under more control, and he used his start yesterday to back off on the speed of his fastball and concentrate on new wrinkles that are designed to make him better down the road. Manager Lloyd McClendon, for one, is willing to live with the struggles.

"His development is going to happen here in the big leagues. It's important we encourage and do everything we can to make him better," McClendon said.

Works for me. This is a comfort. Like most people, I was assuming that Perez was being his usual self and sucking. Now we learn his numbers are bad because he's working on new habits which are, of course, uncomfortable at first, as all new habits are. Joe Rutter writes that the changes are recent, and were provoked by the suckiness of the old habits:
After watching Perez last only 1.2 innings in his previous start - he gave up five runs to the Boston Red Sox in that game - pitching coach Spin Williams decided to make changes with Perez's mechanics that he had been mulling all spring.

"It's nothing with him arm. It's just a more controlled delivery," Williams said. "He's wild and has been wild, all over the place. He did an outstanding job today. I was really happy with it. The results weren't good, but we knew they wouldn't be."

By concentrating on the adjustments yesterday, Perez had to sacrifice some of his velocity. That helped explain why the Reds pounded him for three runs on four hits in the first inning.

"When he gets comfortable, you'll see the velocity come back up," McClendon said.

McClendon has no plans of opening Perez's fourth spot in the rotation to competition.

Rutter also notes that Spin did a similar thing to Kip Wells in 2002. Dvorchak also reports that Ryan Vogelsong's bionic arm has made him a new player:
The biggest difference in Ryan Vogelsong this spring has been an increase in his velocity, which is higher than it was before he had elbow surgery in 2001. Vogelsong has been hitting 96 to 97 mph. Previously, he had been throwing 93 to 94 mph. . . .

"He's the biggest surprise of camp for me, and the most pleasant one," pitching coach Spin Williams said of Vogelsong. "His stuff is quite a bit different. "

This is great news.

Get Nolan Ryan Vogelsong into the rotation. Assuming we keep Benson through July, now the smart play is returning Josh Fogg to the bullpen, bumping everyone up a spot, and using Rick Reed or Estaban Meadows in the fifth spot. Josh Fogg has been a killer closer in the past, and he could do it again I'm sure. We can bring up Sean Burnett when Benson is traded.

Another stat geek weighs in

There is confusion (I know, for I was long confused) on the legitimacy of using a player's statistics to assess -- let alone predict -- their performance. After all, players are not fair coins or six-sided dice -- they are human beings. Reducing them to data points to be cranked through statistical packages like SAS seemed (and still seems), well, unsavory at best.

What are these numbers, anyway? What are they composed of, beyond their (sometimes not so) simple formulas?

To answer questions like these I have found it useful to conceptualize baseball stats as follows (this idea byt he way is a basic tenet of classical test theory as it applies to quantitative measurement, and though the subject gets complex, I think you will find this idea both simple and elegant, even if my explanation is not).

Any player's observed score (his slugging percentage, let's say) can be considered conceptually as the sum of two components -- his true score plus an error score.

Os = Ts + Es

Observed scores are the data we have to work with--a player's obp for the month of may, for example. The observed score can be thought of as a single at bat or as large as the mean (average) obp of a whole career (it cannot be larger, natch).

This is of course only theoretical, but conceptually, when we compare two players, the true score part of the observed score are what we are most interested in. True score are where the real trait differences lie. It seems safe to say that Barry Bonds has a greater ability to hit home runs than Jack Wilson. He has more of that trait and Bonds' higher observed scores on power statistics (slug percentage, for instance) is due in large part on real differences of ability.

A player's error score is everything else--whether the player was hung over or not, the strength of the hitters or pitcher he faced, weather, good and bad luck, etc. Since so little is controlled in baseball (relative to, say, a standardized testing situation, which is set up in such as way as to minimize many common sources of error), over stretches of time the error score can be quite large. This is why Jason Giambi can go three weeks hitting .080--a large (negative) error score is overwhelming his true score. The wind holds up a sure double just long enough for a player to snag it; he has to face Red Sox and A's pitching on successive series; FedEx loses his BALCO shipment, whatever (the large random error compenent is of course desireable, for it is what makes baseball or any game for that matter interesting).

But just before the deodorant company calls in The Donald to say "you're fired", bloop hits start dropping in for Jason; players lose sure outs in the sun, and things "even out" (a fancier term would be to say they "regress to the mean"). Sometimes a player's score is helped by error, sometimes he is hurt -- indeed, over an infinite number of trials statistical theory tells us we can expect (random) errors of the sort described above to cancel each other out and equal zero, leaving us with

MeanOs = MeanTs + 0

(It should be noted that this is random error we are talking about. Systematic error (see Coors Field) abounds in baseball as well, which is why people come up with fancy adjustments for ballpark influences, for example.)

Again, this is all theoretical -- we can never really know a player's true score --but that players enjoy so many thousands of innings or at bats gets us about as close to truth (at least as far as those traits that can be readily quantified) as we ever get on earth.

Vogelsong to the rescue?

Ed Eagle at MLB.com reports a Reed vs. Vogelsong vs. Burnett competition for the “No. 5 spot.” As John Perrotto reports for the Beaver County Times & Allegheny Times, Littlefield says this when weighing the choices of Reed, Vogelsong, and Burnett for the rotation:
"Is Reed still got something left? Can he stay healthy? Is Vogelsong ready to start at the big league level now? Certainly, he's closer than Burnett is. What about trade possibilities out there?" Littlefield said.
If Vogelsong is closer to starting at the big league level than Burnett, what is Burnett still doing with the big club? Is this a sign that the Pirates would refuse to field an all-right-handed rotation? In that case, perhaps Sean Burnett is competing with Oliver Perez, or just getting ready as the backup left-handed starter. If Burnett is not competing with Reed, is Vogelsong competing with Reed?

Let’s consider one more quote from another John Perrotto piece which reports these words as falling from the lips of David Littlefield:

"We're always considering ways to improve our ballclub," Littlefield said before the Pirates beat the Minnesota Twins 5-2 in an exhibition game at Hammond Stadium. "Relief pitching is obviously an area we would consider upgrading. We're going to take 12 pitchers north with us, so we're going to need more than a few pitchers to start performing well.

"We'll be looking to see what's out there. We'll look at any trade possibilities and also what pitchers might be out when teams continue to cut their rosters."

So Littlefield is exploring trades or trying to get the word out that he would like to see some trade offers. But, is this the way Littlefield communicates with other GMs - through the Pittsburgh newspapers? I think it's more likely that Littlefield is saying such things to get some leverage with the players. "Things are pretty tough, and I'll make trades if I must to get the mix we need."

Seriously, is he shopping Ryan Vogelsong, as the first quote suggests? Is Vogelsong still with the club because other teams are scouting him? Somehow I doubt that the Braves were calling to ask for Ryan Vogelsong in the days before finishing that Juan Cruz trade. Given that Vogelsong projects as a back-of-the-rotation starter, I also doubt he’s the kind of player too many teams would like to add to their rotation ten days before the season starts. I don't believe it. What message is Littlefield sending to Vogelsong with such talk, then?

Littlefield says we are going with 12 pitchers, and that the bullpen is a mess, and that the bullpen will only consist of pitchers who are performing well. He’s ready to add players off waivers. On one hand, we have this guy who is doing great and looks ready to start at the big league level. On the other hand, the bullpen is an urgent disaster. Translation: (David to Ryan): if we don't have bullpen pitchers who pitch as well as you, we'll be eating dog food and living in a cardboard box.

Is Littlefield hoping that Ryan Vogelsong will volunteer for bullpen duty? Wouldn't that solve a lot of problems?

They will lose Reed if they don’t take him north. Unlike Daryle Ward, Reed can refuse a minor-league assignment and become a free agent. In a perfect world, Reed would volunteer to work in long relief and give up any claim he has on the fifth starter’s spot. But I don’t think that will happen since Reed seems to be thinking that his struggles are just rustiness that will come off as he gets into shape.

Earlier I suggested Brian “Estaban Loaiza” Meadows for the fifth spot, but perhaps they are thinking that if we make that move before we lose a starter to trade or injury, then we are going into the season without that insurance or depth in the rotation. Meadows could start a game on five minutes’ notice. It makes sense to wait as long as possible to take him out of his swingman role.

To sum up. The rotation is going to be Wells, Benson, Fogg, Perez or Burnett, and Reed. Ideally you would prefer Perez since his style is so different from that of Fogg and Reed. Burnett is something of a soft-tosser: think Mark Buehrle as the best-case scenario. Barring sudden injuries, Vogelsong should move into the bullpen, where he could be a savior. It may be smarter to return Fogg to the bullpen and give Vogelsong the third starter’s spot, but I don’t see that happening. If Fogg gets hurt, is ineffective, or if Benson is traded, Vogelsong could return to starting if the Pirates were using him in long relief. Vogelsong could even be considered for closing if Mesa implodes and explodes in alternate save opps for a month or so. Since he just came off Tommy John surgery, perhaps short relief would be good for his arm. Works for John Smoltz, right? Either way, I think the current storm about not having enough good pitchers in the bullpen is a roundabout way of asking Vogelsong to volunteer for a relief role.

… update: Right after I wrote this, I found Robert Dvorchak’s Friday article posted on the same subject. Dvorchak gives some play to the possibility of a trade and he also sees a bullpen assignment as a possible solution. He quotes Reed hedging on the question of whether or not he’d accept a bullpen role.

Thursday, March 25, 2004

Mondesi watch

Readers of Honestwags get Dave Littlefield. They have contemplated the scorched earth left behind by The Golf Cheat. They understand that "Good Baseball Men", as The Golf Cheat's apologists like describe him, should be consigned to the flames that consumed Bill Veeck's wooden leg. Once "good baseball men" ruled the game, and once men drank lots of booze at lunch and that was considered romantic. Once men made a living hammering out spittoons. All of which is to say don't blame DL if Mondy doesn't work out. All DL can offer a guy like Mondy is a chance to move to a contender in mid-season for the price he will command, maybe another arm. At worst he's gone at the end of the season. It's DL's job to put guys in positions where they can help the team most. Given the economics of baseball and Big Mac's penchant for washing his pockets in hot water, that's not accomplished by three year 10 mil guaranteed contracts for vets with baggage.

Chris Truby vs. Chris Stynes

Pop quiz. It's March 25th, and guess who leads the Bucs in OBP?

Pencils down. The answer is Chris Truby, who has hit .371 / .463 / .571 in 18 games and 40 plate appearances. There is a word for this in the dictionary. Look between "flubber" and "flush."

Should he beat out Chris Stynes, who has hit .178 / .260 / .244 in 16 games and 48 plate appearances? Short answer: no f'n way.

Long answer: Stynes is on a one-year, $1M contract to provide veteran leadership (i.e., he's 31 years old) at third base. Truby has a minor-league contract. Since he's 30, his veteran leadership would be 3% less than Stynes' veteran leadership. Also, Truby has been on four teams and has 820 at-bats in his career. Stynes has been on five teams and has 2200 at-bats in his career. Depending on your choice in metrics, that amounts to Truby having 20% or 62% less veteran leadership. If we prefer to measure experience by at-bats alone, then Jack Wilson towers over Chris Truby. Score round 1 this way: Stynes 1, Truby 0.

Since Truby does not have eight years of MLB experience, he will have to report to Nashville if the Bucs send him there. No doubt this is one reason why the Bucs signed him to a minor-league contract and let him compete this spring. You are paying Stynes $1M, which is a bargain - in raw dollars, at least. I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt. For all we know, he hasn't been playing well because he's been assured of the starting job and he's using the spring to try out new hitting techniques. Stynes 2, Truby 0.

Truby's career numbers are .231 / .269 / .388. Translation: OUCH, fetch the whiskey. This is what Baseball Prospectus wrote about Truby in the 2002 book: "Probably the worst player in the AL last season, Truby had a scarcely believable .497 OPS, and the more he played, the worse he got." Truby's career numbers make Pedro Feliz look good at the plate. That says something. Stynes's career numbers are about league average: .280 / .340 / .407. Stynes 3, Truby -12.

Stynes can play second base. Stynes could be an asset as a utility player. If Bobby Hill gets comfortable and established at second base, and if Jack Wilson has his OBP-powered breakout year, then I'd be all for bringing up Freddy Sanchez (when he's healthy) and playing him at third base. In the meantime, Hill might need a day off here and there if his back acts up after a long stretch of consecutive games. Stynes can slide over to second and Rob Hackovihack can substitute teach at third. Stynes 4, Truby -12.

Finally, Stynes is the better fielder. He was second to Florida's Mike Lowell in fielding percentage among NL third basemen last year. No amount of fluke success should give a starting job to Chris Truby. He can prove the improvement is for real at AAA.

Walkin' Wilson, Hackin' Wilson

After 12 spring games, Jack Wilson has a .438 OBP. 5 walks and 27 at-bats. His OBP is 100 points higher than his batting average. That will do, Jack. (See previous post). Raul Mondesi has been raking in the walks, too, with 7 walks and 45 at-bats. For those of you scoring at home, one walk per 10 at-bats is a handy measure of a good walk rate. (A player who hits .275 in 600 at-bats with 60 walks and, say, 2 HBPs, has a .342 OBP). Randall Simon has 3 walks and 40 at-bats. Not so good, sausage man. His walk rate (7%) is surpassed in suckitude only by that of Craig Wilson (6%) and Rob Hackovihack (3%). By comparison, Walkin' Wilson and Raul Mondesi have spring walk rates of 16%. Craig Wilson can be forgiven for the low walk rate since he's hitting .320 with a .660 slugging percentage. In other words, he's waiting for a pitch to hit, getting it, and hitting it hard. More players like that, please. One other thing. For sure, luck is a factor here. For all I know, Walkin' Wilson faced Oliver Perez on Tuesday and took Wednesday off, and Hackin' Wilson took Tuesday off and faced Greg Maddux on Wednesday. Oh wait, Oliver Perez is on our side.

Pirates will lead NL in OBP

OK, that’s not going to happen, they’ll never catch Colorado, Philadelphia, or St. Louis, but a repeat of fourth place is possible. In one of his diary entries Jack Wilson describes his arbitration experience. He asked for $1.85M and the Bucs offered $1.4M.
We basically proved that average shortstops were being paid well above $2 million. By any means, we didn't go in saying that I'm a superstar. I'm not. Far from it. But I did play in a lot of games the past three years and that was a big key in the process, games and starts. We showed that there were only 13 other shortstops in the big leagues that played in as many games as I had with the Pirates. There also was a lot of statistical mumbo jumbo.
Does Wilson understand the mumbo jumbo, does he sense that the public will think less of him if they learn that he understands this mumbo jumbo, or does he guess that the public doesn’t give a damn about statistical mumbo jumbo? Either way, what mumbo jumbo did they talk about?
I really got involved in the process. I took a lot of notes when the Pirates were talking. I'm a positive person. Everything they said about me that was bad, I'll turn it around and make it into a positive. Those are the things I'll work on this spring. The Pirates kept emphasizing things like on-base percentage, walks, that type of stuff. It was stuff I knew I already had to work on, but I'll put more of an emphasis on it now. If I'm going to hit second in the lineup, which I would like to do, I've got to get on base more often.
Is the value of OBP sinking into Jack Wilson? For years, the good folks at Baseball Prospectus harshed on the Pirates, again and again, for not teaching plate discipline. Hitting prospect after hitting prospect flopped in the majors. It was a team of hacks. But hacker is as hacker does. So we are pleased to report that the Pirates appear to have embraced OBP. In 2001, the Pirates had a league-worst .313 OBP. In 2002, the Pirates had a league-worst .319 team OBP. In 2003, the Pirates posted a team OBP of .338. In the NL, only St. Louis, Colorado, and Philadelphia did better. And Jack Wilson contributed 558 at-bats of .303 OBP. Even Randall Simon was discovered working the count and praising the walk. This is the same guy who said you don’t walk across the water to get a job in the United States. And the current crop of young hitters have more respectable on-base skills: Redman (.374 OBP for the Pirates last year), Bay (.421), and Craig Wilson (.360) are a real change in that department. Bobby Hill posted a .365 OBP last year at AAA, J.J. Davis put up a .342 OBP at Nashville, Freddy Sanchez had a .430 OBP at Pawtucket, and Jose Castillo had a .339 OBP at Altoona after doing better (.370) at Lynchburg the year before. If these guys continue to work the count, that will translate into more runs scored. And if Jack Wilson wants to win his next arbitration case, or get a nice job on the next free-agent market, he’ll want to add 30 or 40 points to his OBP.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

The Rule V Five, Pt. 2

Bob Smizik’s PG column and my response to it generated a lot of email and considerable discussion over at Baseball Primer’s Clutch Hits blog. I was out-numbered and out-thought on most points, but I’ll sleep well knowing I did my good deed for the day. Someone has to stick up for the Bucs and challenge some of the more inaccurate commonplaces that are circulated about the team, if only to provoke the conversation that will replace the stale cynicisms with newer, sharper, more accurate cynicisms. I still don’t understand all the complexities of options and protecting players from the Rule V draft, but this is clear to me now. There is only one reason for exposing a player: you must consider the player a non-prospect. Otherwise, here’s no reasonable interpretation of the loss as anything less than a mistake or a betrayal of the team’s best interest. It’s possible the Pirates weren’t sold on Shelton. Baseball America published a Rule V preview which explains that some scouts weren’t sold on him. I don’t see what’s special about any of the other players taken in the Rule V draft, and I could be persuaded that Shelton has no big-league future except perhaps as a DH. I have no doubt the Bucs had no use for him in 2004. That said, if 2004 is not the year that the Pirates return to the playoffs, then maybe they would have had a use for him in 2005 or 2006. Still, other teams valued him, and Littlefield must have known the Tigers needed a catcher. And I'm told that many teams think highly of Jose Bautista, and he will never make his way back to the team. If Littlefield didn’t know these things, that's not good, to put it softly. Since we should have been able to get more than $50K in a trade, again the notion that Littlefield exposed Shelton for that amount of cash has little purchase in my mind unless I come to believe that he was oblivious to the high opinion other clubs had of these guys. But that’s not all. If the other players are non-prospects – the only excuse for losing them in the Rule V draft – then why, one emailer asked, did the Pirates put Thompson, Brooks and Bennett on the Arizona Fall League roster, something which is usually reserved for your best and brightest prospects? I don’t have a clue. I can’t believe, however, that the Pirates used the AFL to showcase this talent with the intention of selling in the Rule V draft for $50K a head. If they were actively shopping the players in the AFL, then they must have known they could have traded the players for something better. If they were having trouble paying the salaries of the secretaries, or if McClatchy needed a new Benz, surely there were better ways to raise that money. I think we’re still missing some part of the story. Until we learn something new, the default verdict will have to be some mixture of incompetence and indifference. I'm guessing three parts of the former and one part of the latter. I recommend the Primer thread because we debated a whole series of related issues. What value, for example, can the Bucs expect to gain from a winning minor-league system? Are they wise to insist on fielding a team with at least three veteran starters – even when this means they have to sign the veterans off the free-agent market? Are the Tigers, the Indians, or the Mets doing a better job of rebuilding, and doing it in a way the Pirates could emulate? Is Ray Sadler worth anything? There are a lot of good questions on the table. Thanks for the all the email and all the comments. It made my day.

The Scandal of the Rule V Five

I am big fan of Bob Smizik’s coverage of the Pirates, but this essay is warped. Smizik raises the question of whether or not the Pirates deliberately exposed themselves in the Rule V draft so they could generate a little bit of revenue: the Bucs did receive $250K for the loss of the Rule V five.

As Smizik notes, any suspicion of such a thing has to be balanced by consideration of how stupid it would be. $250K is a bucket in the ocean when it comes to running a ball club.

My take on it is this: the Pirates’ minor-league system is crammed with quality second-tier and third-tier players. Every one of the minor-league teams made the playoffs. There’s no way the Pirates could protect all the quality players who might help a club like Detroit in a back-up or back-of-the-pen role, so why mess with the big-league roster or the overall development plan just to protect guys like Rich Thompson, whose upside is Kerry Robinson, the kind of player you can pick up any February or March for something like the minor-league minimum? It was an oversight to not protect Shelton but, with the way the Pirates are developing hitters these days - slowly, patiently - he was several years away from playing at PNC. If you put a player on the 40-man to protect him, don't you have to burn an option, or put him on waivers, to return him to the minors? After what happened with Chad Hermansen, I sympathize with efforts to preserve a player's options.

I think Smizik has been rattled by the Cubs-loving national media. Just because the beer-guzzling children at Wrigley field think Aramis Ramirez is Eric Chavez, that doesn’t mean he is Eric Chavez. Me, I can't erase the bad memories this guy seared into my mind over the last two years.

Aramis Ramirez was not the top talent in the Pirates organization when Littlefield sent him to Chicago. That’s an absurd assertion. He had one good, then one awful season, and his defense at third was miserable last year. I mean, really bad. He is not a leader, and he is not a player a team can build around. Good riddance I say. If he can live up to his mediocre potential as the sixth-best starter on the Cubs, more power to him. He couldn't do that here. The Pirates were unable to grow him as a player, and, most important, he was due $6M this year. Lofton was a two-month rental and the Bucs wanted to move him to give some playing time to Tike Redman, a quality talent the Pirates will start in centerfield this year.

Right now, it's tough to “win” trades with the Cubs and the Red Sox because they have so many fans nationally. They are the darlings of the national media. The “smart” analysts think the Red Sox can do no wrong because Bill James works for them, and the sentimental fans root for the adorable and hapless Cubs. By comparison, the Pirates have very few fans nationally. They never have and they probably never will. So, no one presents their side of the story in the national media, and no one demands it. If the fans of either team want to believe they plundered Pittsburgh, or that Pittsburgh's medical staff is incompetent, there's no defense of the Pirates. Guys like Smizik are our only line of defense and we see here what Smizik thinks of the current ownership and front office.

All that said, so long as Pittsburgh fans have patience and realize they belong to a relatively silent minority, the Pirates can work this bias in their favor. Pittsburgh teams always go farthest when they come in under the national radar. Let the Cubs and Astros and Cardinals see their home games with Pittsburgh as a chance to relax. I'm sure Mac would like that a lot.

Let’s revisit one other aspect of that Cubs trade: Bobby Hill could win that trade for Littlefield. One mediocre, uncoachable player bent on burning bridges and one two-month veteran rental for a prospect with Hill’s upside and $6M to sign other players is not that bad a trade. It's too early to say, especially since only a portion of that $6M was used to acquire Mondesi, Simon, and Stynes, players who will contribute a still-undetermined amount on the field and/or in trade. Finally, if you want to bitch about Littlefield’s record in trade with Hendry, don’t overlook the fact that he nabbed Ray Sadler, a AA centerfielder that Nate Silver’s PECOTA system compares to George Bell, George Hendrick, and Felipe Alou, for a two-month rental of Randall Simon, at the same time that he took Bobby Hill as the PTBNL.

We love spring training because, like spring itself, it is the season for renewed hope and surprisingly vigorous growth. I don’t understand why now is an appropriate time to join Cubs fans everywhere in irrational gloating about the so-called poor quality of the Ramirez/Lofton deal, and unless Smizik has evidence he is withholding about the Rule V draft, his allegations aren't productive or welcome. If the Pirates were that strapped for cash, why would they spend some of the Ramirez loot on Raul Mondesi? Why offer so much to Urbina? If they were only interested in saving money, they could have promoted Rich Thompson and Chris Shelton to the head of a line of better players and saved the money they spent on Raul Mondesi and Randall Simon.

The Bad History of Jose Guillen

Today, Jose Guillen is crushing the ball for Arte Moreno’s suddenly sexy Angels. Had we played our cards right, that would be a Pirates uniform in that picture. Guillen is yet another data point in the miserable failure that was the Pirates’ handling of young position players under Bonifay. Guillen still has the execrable plate discipline that we associate with all the Bonifay prospects, but man, can he rake. So as not to repeat this kind of history, let’s take a closer look at it.

In mid-July 1999, Bonifay traded him to his old friend, Chuck LaMar, GM of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Guillen was 23 years old. In 1997, he went straight from A ball to the majors and was good in the first season and exactly the same – no improvement – in the second. The 1998 Pirates finished with 69 wins. They had one good hitter – Kendall – and three good pitchers. Let’s review: C, Kendall, 1B, Kevin Young, 2B, Tony Womack, 3B, Fernando Tatis Aramis Ramirez, SS, Lou Collier, LF, Al Martin, CF, Jermaine Allensworth, RF, Guillen. 120 at-bats into 1999, Bonifay gave up on him. The 1999 team was C Kendall (and replacements), 1B Kevin Young, 2B Warren Morris, 3B Ed Sprague, SS Mike Benjamin, LF Al Martin, CF Brian Giles, RF Guillen/Adrian Brown. That team won 78 games.

Only Tony Womack had more at-bats for the 1998 team so, as the Pirates appeared to be turning a corner, perhaps it was Guillen that Bonifay associated with Losing. Bonifay (like many people) also thought Guillen had attitude problems. Granted, he was 5 for 12 in SB attempts, and parts of his game need work in frustrating kind of way. But what 23-year-old doesn’t have attitude problems? Guillen failed to meet some pretty unrealistic expectations, and he was scapegoated as the unimproving fixture in a lineup that won only 69 games.

So, Warren Morris is wildly exceeding expectations and the Bucs are looking good. And Kendall goes down with that horrific injury I will never, ever erase from my mind. They are right around or below .500 and about eight games behind the Houston Astros. Bonifay trades Jose Guillen, who has lost his job to the great Adrian Brown, to Tampa Bay for Joe Oliver and Humberto Cota.

Of course, not all Pirates fans shared Bonifay’s sense that the unimproving Guillen was the weak link in the 1998 or 1999 lineups, and this trade was a groaner. Joe Oliver? He finished the season with a 538 OPS over 45 games. Keith Osik caught 50 games and finished 1999 with a 490 OPS. The Pirates had Tim Laker at Nashville, but probably over a game of golf, Bonifay lent his ear to LaMar and was persuaded that he owed it to the team to get Joe Oliver.

Bob Smizik was there when someone insinuated that Bonifay had been robbed, and he wrote about it in a snarky essay for the PG. Smizik:

Bonifay got his back up a bit when it was suggested he was snookered in the trade that sent Cota and Oliver, who joined the Pirates Friday in Montreal, for Guillen and pitcher Jeff Sparks, nothing more than a throw-in.

"Last year we gave up a starter who was in our rotation [Esteban Loaiza] for a pitcher and a second baseman [Warren Morris], who was a Class AA, and now he's our starting second baseman."

And a darn good one. That trade, thus far, has been an outrageous steal for the Pirates. But it's hardly the same as this one. Loaiza, despite a good arm, never had the kind of star potential that Guillen once - or still does possess.

Estaban Loaiza for Warren Morris. A darn good one … the irony, oh man, it hurts. Must … find … liquor.

If I remember correctly, Warren Morris had a strong year at AA (for the Rangers and the Bucs) in 1998 before jumping (with Kris Benson) into the opening-day lineup. He didn’t face much competition at Bradenton, beating out NRI Rafael Bournigal for the job. He gave a lot in 1999, but he took away just as much in 2000. Under serious pressure to repeat or improve on his freshman-year breakout, Morris, the fresh face of the 2000 Pirates, suffered a sophomore slump that more or less ruined his career as a future All-Star.

Am I the only one who is encouraged by the fact that J.J. Davis is 25?

Can we change the subject? Did I mention that Estaban Loaiza turns up as a "most similar pitcher" for Brian Meadows at baseball-reference.com?

Tuesday, March 23, 2004

Stats Geek strikes again

Pittsburgh fans should be thankful that the PG gives this guy a regular column. Today he looks at J.J. Davis. I shudder to remember his catalog of outfield prospects, and I curse Brian O'Neill for reminding me that Tike Redman and J.J. Davis may belong in the same category. Of course, we agree that Davis belongs on the team. Losing him to waivers would be much worse than losing Shelton. If you make the prospects march through the minors one level at a time, you have to give them the benefit of the doubt the year after they mash it up in Nashville.

Adios Brent Alexander

Brent was the rare nfl player whose most notable quality was his gentle disposition. Has an nfl safety ever been more gentle? Do not confuse gentle with soft a la Scot Shields or cerebral a la Darren Perry. I imagined huddles with Gildon and Porter flexing and screaming and Brent chuckling to himself all paternal. At the postgame spread Brent would let Kimo have the last everything bagel. Stepping in for Brent is Mike Logan, he of the 29 inch waist. Call it a slight to moderate upgrade.

Cuts today

No word of them yet. John Perrotto has clear expectations. Great work, John. ... 2:30pm update: No surprises. J.J. Davis and Oliver Perez remain with the club for now. I like the side of Littlefield that we see as he reject Daryle Ward's claim that the Pirates didn't give him a fair chance:
"He didn't play well," said Littlefield. "He's got lots of talent and has performed well at the Major League level at times. But at this point in time, he just has not shown us enough to show that he is going to be a part of the mix even in the latter part of Spring Training." Ward told reporters that he would return home to California to discuss his future with his wife before deciding whether or not he would accept the Pirates' minor league assignment. According to Littlefield, Ward's choices are limited. "[Ward is] like everybody else. Once you sign that contract, you are in a position where your option is to report to minor league camp. If not, players will be on the suspended [list]," Littlefield explained.
Get thee to Nashville, D. Ward. The arrogance of some people, I swear. I wasn't surprised when the Pirates signed Ward because I attended that game when he poked that slam into the river, and it was impressive. But we can't abide players who think they are bigger than the good of the franchise, so put that guy out with the trash if he doesn't report to minor-league camp with his hat in his hands. Anyone with such little respect for a spot on the 25-man roster should not be anywhere near the players who are making good in AAA. ... 3/25 update: Ward reported to Nashville's camp. Smart move on his part.

Bobby Hill: The Case for Optimism

Keep an eye on Bobby Hill. With Freddy Sanchez out after off-season ankle surgery, and only Jose Castillo in camp as competition, Hill should start the season as the second baseman. If he can add health to his bounty of talent and opportunity, then he’s going to break out big-time. Nate Silver’s PECOTA system compares him to the slap-hitting U.L. Washington and foresees part-time play, but there are three good reasons to think that system might be overlooking Hill by too strongly weighting his most recent performance.

First, Bobby Hill has bounced from level to level the last two years. He was promoted and demoted on the whims of fickle employers, and each time he was burdened as a glittering distraction or a disappointing scapegoat. Hill was a hot prospect or a high-profile flop, nothing in between, and never the same thing for more than a month or two. This is no way to nuture talent.

In 2002, he looked great in spring training but Don Baylor preferred Delino Deshields, who stunk up Wrigley Field for six weeks. Hill returned to the Cubs, slumped for a month, and was sent back down to AAA. Don Baylor was soon fired. Hill returned to the big leagues in August and impressed Bruce Kimm’s 67-win team with strong play in that meaningless end of 2002. Hill was seen as the future at second base and Hendry named him as the starter for the 2003 Cubs.

A week before Thanksgiving, the Cubs signed Dusty Baker. Here’s the second good reason to think Hill’s recent performance does not accurately express his ability. On the day of his signing, Baker spoke of winning with a mix of veterans and youngsters in a nod to the expectation that the next Cubs manager would nuture Corey Patterson, Bobby Hill, and Hee Choi.

Surprise, surprise. On December 4, the Dodgers sent Eric Karros, Mark Grudzielanek, and $2M to the Cubs for Todd Hundley and Chad Hermansen. The party line was unchanged: Choi and Hill would start on the right side of the infield and Karros and Grudzielanek would be a strong bench as well as insurance. On February 3, the Sporting News tagged Hill as a “breakout player” for 2003. The 2003 edition of Baseball Prospectus warned that Baker and Hendry would not have the patience to let these youngsters work their way into a comfort zone. Baseball Prospectus also noted that Hill “does all of the things Knoblauch could do in his prime.” By the end of February, as Baker entered his first spring training with the Cubs, the Illinois sportswriters were pleading for Baker to give the kids a chance. It was plain to all that Baker did not think much of the young starters he inherited from Kimm.

In spring training, Hill went 8-for-52 (.154), made five errors, and was sent to AAA camp a week before Opening Day. Jim Hendry clucked his tongue in disappointment and intimated that Hill let the team down after leading them on with a strong showing in his late 2002 call-up. Thanks, boss. Hill went back to Iowa and turned in a near-identical performance to his several months there in 2002. It’s hard to know what effect Baker’s cold impatience had on Hill’s spring training play, but Baker also found a way to coax the worst from Hee Choi. If fans are prepared to give Choi some mulligan for his 2003 performance under Baker, they should consider the same for Hill.

Last July, the Pirates sent Kenny Lofton and that bitterly underachieving disappointment, Fernando Tatis Aramis Ramirez, to the Cubs for cash, HVAC specialist Jose Hernandez, RHP Matt Bruback, and a PTBNL who materialized as Bobby Hill. The Pirates basically traded Ramirez for $6M in 2004 payroll and Bobby Hill. The Pirates got Hill at a steep discount. Because he couldn’t play for Dusty Baker, public opinion of Hill, as this year’s BP annual evidences, soured. He went from “prospect” to “suspect.” Yet if Bobby Hill is our starting second baseman for 2004, this was a good trade, and Littlefield was right to snap him up as such a Dusty-driven discount. If Hill flops, let’s wait and see what Mondesi, Simon, and Stynes – players signed with some of the Aramis money - do to help the Pirates – on the field and/or in trade - before we issue the final judgment on this deal.

Here’s the third reason to think Hill may be overlooked as a breakout candidate. In the month after his demotion, Hill acquired a stress fracture in his lower back. He kept this to himself as he sought vindication on the field. The back would stiffen up mid-game and was painful in the morning. When Hill came to Pittsburgh he came clean with the news of an injury and the Pirates took care of it after understating its seriousness to the press. If Hill can manage this injury and play pain-free in 2004, we may see that his 2003 statistics were depressed by the injury.

Bobby Hill not only has talent. He also has opportunity. His main competition for the second base job is Freddy Sanchez, who was also acquired with Mike Gonzalez for two months of Jeff Suppan and the return of Brandon Lyon. Sanchez hit .341 / .430 / .493 in 200 at-bats at Pawtucket but, in a familiar scenario with the Bucs, he went down in his first game for his new team. The problem was a bone spur in his right ankle that required off-season surgery. In both acquisitions, then, the Pirates received damaged goods. I wonder if a slippery reputation will help Epstein’s bid for a long tenure in Boston.

Anyway, keep an eye on this Bobby Hill. He played nervously on March 4th, his first game since mid-September. Three days later, he sat down for a week to recover from stiffness in his back and hamstrings. Since then, he’s been dynamite at the plate. He has a 981 OPS in eleven games. He looks to me like a great risk/reward player, someone who comes cheap yet has a lot of upside. Consider Bobby Hill reason #7 that the 2004 Pirates will be anything but boring (behind the trade dramas of Kendall, Benson, Mondesi/Simon, the unknown performance of Oliver Perez and Ryan Vogelsong, and the enduring mission to start Craig Wilson.). As Robert Dvorchak writes today:

Hill's home run sparked a four-run first inning, although the Pirates went on to lose, 11-7. He also singled in the second inning, giving him eight hits in his previous 21 at-bats, and moved freely in the field and on the bases, a sign that he's holding up despite having a stress fracture in his lower left back.

"It's not going to go away. It's there," Hill said of his back. "I just hoped I've strengthened the muscles around it, and knock away that nerve that was bothering me last year."

Paging Will Carroll. What are the odds that Hill’s core strengthening program will keep him fit to play? We'd love to see this in the next UTK. [Update: Will says it all depends on Hill's dedication to the program, and he doesn't know enough about that to speculate.]

Meanwhile, Freddy Sanchez is unable to play and Hill’s only competition is Jose Castillo, who is a great prospect but one who has yet to play at AAA. Any tie will go to Hill, and he has a good lead at the moment. Bobby Hill has the talent and the opportunity to really help the Bucs this year. Let's hope he can maintain his health.

Lima time in Pittsburgh?

"For the love of God, no." My guess is that 90% of Pirates fans would have this initial reaction to any deal that brought him to PNC. Jason Reid at the LA Times reports (registration required, I think) that the Dodgers have too many arms and need to deal. The Pirates are a logical match. With J.J. Davis and Craig A. Wilson looking strong, I think trading a bat for a Dodger starter makes sense on the surface.

Odalis Perez is on a one-year, $5M contract so being left-handed does not make him attractive unless the Dodgers will take Jason Kendall. Jose Lima (minor-league contract) and Wilson Alvarez (one-year, $1.5M for 2004) are within budget and could be acquired to buy valuable AAA time for Oliver Perez, insurance for Ryan Vogelsong and Rick Reed, and quality innings in carefully-selected spot starts and long relief appearances. Alvarez is left-handed, too. The Pirates won’t take Darren Dreifort, duh: he’s owed $12M this season and $13M next season. Think about that the next time someone complains about Benson's $6M.

Both these guys are not appealling. Alvarez was only successful in 95 innings last year, and he's no candidate for a 30 start job. Lima will always be a potential public-relations disaster. I wouldn't mess with his comfort zone if I was his handler, and I wouldn't expect his success to carry into a new environment if I was Dave Littlefield. Dreading the next Operation Shutdown would add some excitement to following the Pirates, but that's a bad kind of excitement.

Unless the Dodgers will deal Greg Miller or Edwin Jackson or some other comparable prospect, I think they should hold onto their bats and wait for a better deal.

... Gammons says the Dodgers won't part with Edwin Jackson for Adam Dunn. WTF? I would do that trade in a heartbeat.

The cash value of B prospects

In recent years, Littlefield has signed quality veterans at low prices and traded them mid-season. Last year he was able to acquire Bobby Hill, Freddy Sanchez, and Ray Sadler in trades involving Kenny Lofton, Jeff Suppan, and Randall Simon. Here’s my question: what is the cash value of a B prospect? How does that value factor into the decision to make veteran trade-bait signings? If we assume that Raul Modesi was signed as trade bait, the Pirates invest $1.75M in him to get (a) some playing time from Mondesi, which has value, plus, perhaps, (b) the addition of a prospect mid-season. These days any first-round pick gets a $1M signing bonus, and most third-round picks get a $500K signing bonus. If Littlefield targets a AA or AAA player, then he’s targeting players who have, in most cases, benefitted from several years of additional nuturing investment (salary, instruction, uniforms, hot dogs, etc.). Is it not easy to imagine that the addition of a prospect like Bobby Hill or Freddy Sanchez is worth $500K or $1M or $2M in cash? Each time a prospect advances a level, he moves that much farther from the value set by the signing bonus. Those skills must have additional value. Anyone know how these guys are valued and care to share some non-proprietary details?

Monday, March 22, 2004

Dost crave for triumph in this petty strife?

News to me:
Although the United States failed to qualify for the Olympic Games, the Pirates will be represented by four players in their minor-league system who will be with various teams. They include pitcher Brandon Agamennone, Italy; shortstop Yurendell DeCaster, The Netherlands; center fielder Bobby Kingsburg, Greece; and middle infielder Kevin Nicholson, Canada.
Should he ever make the club, would DeCaster be the first player from the Netherlands since John Otten? And if Agamennone makes The Show as a reliever, can he enter the game in a chariot, with a cheering "chorus"? "Mighty is the murmur of a crowd," he might say. And after the game, to the media: "Know, that the praise which honour bids us crave, / Must come from others' lips, not from our own." ... I never realized Bert Blyleven hails from Holland. Looks like BR.com has six players born in Holland and one in the Netherlands. Thanks to reader Nick for his tip.

Bradley method

Haynes gives birth to strong start vs. Pirates Ugh. Many times I've seen Haynes "laboring" on the mound, but who thought this was the reason? Now we now why he's unusually good every nine months or so. Better headlines, please. All kidding aside: Congratulations, Papa Haynes.

We're not just going to hand him a job

Some of this is bluster, some of this is saying the right thing to the media. But I don't doubt Mac means it:
"I don't think anybody in the organization would want to see [J.J. Davis lost on waivers]," manager Lloyd McClendon said. "But at the same time, he still has to perform and show that he belongs in the big leagues. We're not just going to hand him a job because he's out of options. Is that a factor? Yeah. Is it the deciding factor? No. How he performs is the deciding factor. He has to show us that he belongs."
I want J.J. Davis in PNC. He put it together in AAA last year and has earned a shot at the opening-day roster. I don't care what you think of the Pirates' chances against the Cubs, the Cardinals, or the Astros this year. Giving away playing time just because a player is "the future" or out of options is terrible management. It's bad for morale. It needlessly jeopardizes everyone's season. It sends a bad message - we'll lose now to win later - that erodes an organization's ability to compete in the long run. If you let the players know that winning now is not the most important thing - even in a rebuilding year - you put your team on the Arizona Cardinals career path. It takes all dignity from your established players and a rotting begins.

At some point Littlefield will trade an outfielder, perhaps for some more prospects, or perhaps to sweeten the nasty taste of Kendall's contract. It looks like the Pirates have crowded out J.J. Davis and Craig A. Wilson, but this isn't Houston, and the Pirates aren't paying $10M for a centerfielder like Biggio. No one is blocked the way Jason Lane was blocked the past two years.

Does GM Dave Littlefield have a plan?

A few points come up again and again as I read the pre-season essays on the Bucs. As Matthew Namee writes over at The Hardball Times:
Does GM Dave Littlefield have a plan?

Sure doesn't seem like it. In an MLB.com chat on February 28, Littlefield said, "In general, we're looking to put a competitive club out on the field. I'm like everyone here in attendance. I want to win more games."

For truthfulness, specific detail, and candor, an MLB.com chat must rank right around an NFL coach’s Friday press conference. When a seasoned reporter asks, “How will you attack this #1 ranked defense?” he doesn’t expect the coach to photocopy the play chart and make time on Saturday to explain what all the X’s and O’s mean. He only expects some platitudes or, on occasion, some intemperate or rash comments with which to make scandal. Namee cites an MLB chat as a place where one could reasonably expect to learn about the method behind a GM’s madness, and that’s absurd or na├»ve or lazy or all three. I worry that Moneyball has spoiled a whole generation of baseball analysts. Never again will a GM provide such access to the plan.
Well, that's a heck of a nice goal, but his actions don't really support it. In 2001, Littlefield traded his ace, Jason Schmidt, to the Giants, and has since watched Schmidt emerge as one of the best pitchers in baseball.
First of all, the snarky tone (“that’s a heck of a nice goal”) typifies the condescension that runs throughout the essay. He pretends that he’s not enjoying it, but it’s obvious that he found a way to have some fun with the essay. It's too bad that mindless ridicule was the only way he could find.

Seriously, though: the Schmidt trade? Where to begin. First of all, Schmidt was not an ace at the trade deadline in 2001. He wasn't even "the" ace of that staff - the closest thing to an ace the Bucs had in 2001 was Todd Ritchie (who Littlefield dealt to the White Sox for Kip Wells, Sean Lowe, and Josh Fogg). Schmidt made 66 starts in 1998 and 1999, won 24 games, and broke down. He was good but not damn good. He struck out about 310 batters and walked about 155 in 430 innings - ratios that don't approach what he did last year for the Giants, the only year Schmidt has ever deserved the name "ace."

Schmidt got bombed in 2000, and in 2001, he was a fragile pitcher who seemed a bit obsessed with the number of bullets left in his gun – like maybe there weren’t too many. Like Benson more recently, Schmidt impressed me - I'm an ass for saying this, but it is frustrating to experience such loss - as a malingerer, as a player filled with fear, or as a player with more contempt for his club than respect for his teammates. (I sure hope Benson has the patience and the ability to prove me wrong.) The Bucs coaxed 14 starts from Schmidt and dealt him at the deadline. He went to the Giants and they doubled his salary to $5M per year, a price the Bucs would not pay but expected him to command.

When he dealt Jason Schmidt and John Vander Wal for Armando Rios and Ryan Vogelsong, at that same deadline Littlefield also traded Mike Williams to the Astros for Tony McKnight, and Terry Mulholland to the Dodgers for Adrian Burnside and Mike Fetters. At the time, McKnight, Burnside, and Vogelsong were decent pitching prospects. Later Burnside went to Detroit in the Randall Simon deal. As with Mike Williams in 2001, in 2003 Simon went mid-season for a prospect (this time, the promising CF Ray Sadler) before Littlefield re-signed him in the next off-season, probably hoping to deal him again. When a GM does the same thing twice, is this evidence of a plan? Maybe. It could also be coincidence.

At the deadline in 2001 the plan at the time was clear to everyone: Littlefield would rebuild around pitching. The Bucs were thrilled to get Vogelsong, and even McKnight looked promising. If the Schmidt trade still hurts the memory of most Pirates fans, you have to remember that Rios blew out his knee in his first game as a Pirate, and Vogelsong went down not much later. We also had an inflated opinion of Vander Wal's value (which reminds me, a little bit, of the high regard we now have for Craig A. Wilson). Now that Vogelsong looks ready for a #4 or #5 spot in the rotation for 2004 and 2005, it would make sense to reserve a little judgment on that trade, especially given Schmidt's fragile health. Finally, any examination of the state of the Pirates should confirm that Littlefield has remained focussed on starting pitching as the foundation of the next winning team.

Littlefield’s draft and trade strategy hasn’t changed much since 2001. What has changed is the willingness of analysts to remember it, or do their homework when it's time to revisit that subject. Anyone who can’t see a plan behind his consistent practices isn’t looking or worse, doesn’t want to see the plan in the first place.

He shipped the team's only star, Brian Giles, to the Padres last season. Those moves might make sense if Littlefield was in rebuilding mode, but he seems to think the Pirates are contenders right now.
Namee knows that financial considerations pushed Giles off the roster, so it's dishonest to cite this as though it was a trade Littlefield wanted to make. And if Oliver Perez starts 30 games in 2005, it's possible the trade won't look so bad anyway. Littlefield has signed veterans to avoid another Chad Hermansen disaster - all the veterans have bought time for the minor league players. Sanders was, I think, a good investment in J.J. Davis. Regardless of that, what is up with ridiculing a GM for talking - or acting - like his Pirates can contend right now? This is the Pittsburgh Pirates, not the Arizona Cardinals.
He keeps going out and signing the sorts of players a contending team signs to help in a push for the pennant -- veterans like Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders, Raul Mondesi, and Randall Simon.
Reggie Sanders had a great year and was well worth one million dollars. Lofton went in the trade that unloaded Fernando Tatis Aramis Ramirez, whose contract, attitude, and performance were not pleasant. As with Schmidt, Ramirez's status in Pittsburgh did not raise his trade value, and as with Schmidt, the team that took the Pirate looked good in the short run. Randall Simon fetched Ray Sadler; I don't know why we should complain about acquiring Simon. It remains to be seen what Mondesi will do for the club. Whatever they mean, these signings are not the damning evidence that Namee makes them out to be.
Problem is, the Pirates aren't a Mondesi away from competing; they're a Bonds plus a Prior away from competing.
This isn’t fantasy baseball we are talking about. “Stars and scrubs” kicks ass in 5x5 roto leagues, but when do we see it on the field? With the Yankees, maybe, but that lineup looks more like stars, stars, stars, and Enrique Wilson if someone is hurt. What did A-Rod do for the Rangers? OK, they didn't have a stud pitcher. Still: what team has botha Bonds and a Prior? (And how can we possibly talk about Bonds and Prior like there is more than one of each?) And what of the Marlins? Who was their Bonds? Who was their Prior? This is an thoughtless conclusion to an incompetent summary of Littlefield’s tenure.
The sooner Littlefield admits this to himself and starts behaving like the GM of a rebuilding team, the sooner the Pirates can begin the long road back to respectability.
The hubris. At least it's good for a laugh. The sooner Matthew Namee pulls his head out of his ass, and sees the Pittsburgh Pirates as a franchise that is, like all the franchises, bigger than him, the sooner he’ll have something careful, accurate, and meaningful to say about them.

Sunday, March 21, 2004

VanBenschoten vs. Burnett

From today's PG, I gather that Burnett is much closer to the fifth starter job than VanBenschoten. This is more evidence of Littlefield's preference for stable progress through the minor leagues. Burnett is 21, but he started a full season (27 starts) at Altoona last year. VanBenschoten split time between Lynchburg (9 starts) and Altoona (17 starts). He's 24. Burnett did a full year at Hickory in 2001; VanBenschoten did his full year in 2002. Neither player has started a game in AAA but, given their experience at each level in the farm system, Burnett is considered ahead of Golden Flash.

The new BP book won't get excited about Burnett because they rank his performance in the tenth percentile for strikeouts. In other words, he doesn't strike out many. On the other hand, he is in the ninetieth percentile on walks and home runs. If he was right-handed, he'd be the anti-Oliver Perez. Given the dimensions of PNC, however, it's a damn good thing both pitchers are left-handed.

Burnett's PECOTA comps are poor (17 index) which means there aren't many pitchers like him. There is one good comp, though: Mark Buerhle. After that there's not many current players who compare. VanBenschoten's comps were discussed here. His higher index (52) suggests that he's a lot more like that list of players.

I doubt the Bucs will break camp with Burnett as the fifth starter. A rotation of Williams, Perez, Burnett, and VanBenschoten should destroy the competition at AAA. Enduring minor-league success is a good and necessary thing for the Pirates. Having Burnett in AAA is not only good for Burnett (possibly), it's also good for everyone else at Nashville. It's a lot easier to focus on your game when you play for a winning team. So, all things in good time. Unless Reed, Meadows, and Torres look totally incapable of starting a game by mid-April, I don't see any reason to rush Burnett.

Well, one reason: say Benson is on his way out of town, and you want to put Oliver Perez at Nashville. Then I think you take your chances with the best of Nashville which is, obviously, not Perez. If you don't get some kind of innings-eater back in the Benson trade, then maybe it's not such a bad idea to let Burnett skip AAA. In that case, however, the loot acquired for Benson had better be good.