Saturday, August 28, 2004

Game 128: Natty Morris at Nelson Figueroa

Here's your brief history of Nelson Figueroa. He's a right-handed breaking-ball artist who has never had anything but a high-80s fastball. When he graduated from high school in Brooklyn, he was 5-10 and 130 pounds. No one wanted him so he took his 1050 SAT score to Brandeis, where he pitched for two years.

He finally got his break with an invitation to pitch in the Cape Cod league. He made the most of that opportunity and the Mets took him in the 30th round of the 1995 draft. He dominated the Sally league in 1996 and the New York media fell in love with him. At the 1998 deadline, after two less impressive seasons at Double A, the Mets dealt him to the D'Backs with Bernard Gilkey for RHP WIllie Blair and C Jorge Fabregas. The D'backs then dealt him to the Phillies, two years later, with Padilla, Travis Lee, and Omar Daal for Curt Schilling. The Brewers claimed him off waivers from the Phillies in 2002 and the Pirates used him for 35 innings, mainly out of the bullpen, last year.

Figueroa knows that the Pirates don't regard him as a likely part of the next championship roster. As Ed Eagle reports for

Opportunities have been rare for Figueroa with the Pirates. Despite two solid seasons at Triple-A Nashville, it took the trade of Kris Benson and injuries to Wells, Burnett and Dave Williams before he was given a shot to start for the Bucs this season.

The 30-year-old realizes that his performance this weekend could go a long way in helping him secure a big-league job next season, even if it is not with the Pirates.

"I consider it an audition," said Figueroa. "You want to show the rest of the 29 teams what you can do."

He'll want to keep the ball in the park, In 2002, he allowed eighteen home runs in 93 innings that included eleven starts and 19 relief appearances. Last year, he allowed eight home runs in 35 innings.

Matt Morris is no slouch when it comes to giving up home runs, either. If you are headed to the park today, bring your glove. The Pirates are pretty due for some massive run-scoring.

Friday, August 27, 2004

Game 127: Suppan at Vogelsong

The Cards are coming off losing two of three in Cincinnati. Last night they were shut down by the mighty Aaron Harang.

A strong game by Vogelsong would be a huge lift for the team and the fans.

The Cardinals do not respect the Pirates. As Julian Tavarez put it:

"The Pittsburgh Pirates are 35 games out; they're not going anywhere," Tavarez said. "If it's 2-2 in the eighth and we're playing San Francisco or San Diego for the wild-card, that's different. It's the Pittsburgh Pirates."

What he's trying to say, I think, is that these Cardinals-Pirates games are exhibitions characterized by meaningless and one-sided baseball.

Thanks for the bulletin board material. Not that we'll need it, but it will make any victories we can manage that much sweeter.


More thinking about Kip

John Perrotto reviews the Kip situation. Perrotto reports that Kip is certain to get a large raise and should win $4M to $4.5M for next year. That should be - with Kip's six years experience - his last year of arbitration, making him a free agent in 2006.

Kip Wells has great stuff and he's as good a bet as any member of the team to put up great numbers next year. Still, it's just a bet. What are the odds he returns to his 2003 form? 1 in 2?

Four million per year will get you a very good position player. Anyone can get hurt or suddenly lose their abilities, but my guess is that a very good position player is a much safer gamble. If I only had $4.5M to spend and had to choose between a position player and a pitcher, I'd take the position player every time. So, I wouldn't bring him back at that price. I'd let some other team pick up that raise, take that gamble, and take a prospect or two as compensation.

It will be a tough call either way. If the Pirates retain Kip and he wins 15 games, Littlefield will look like a genius. If they retain him and he wins 5 games, not too many fans will be angry since he kept one of our own. Far better for DL to spend that money on a guy that's been with us than to spend it on a free agent starter who would come in as a "Proven Veteran" with higher expectations and not much better odds of winning fifteen games.

This move wouldn't be popular with the fans, but if I was DL, I'd consider escrowing that $4M for use in 2006 to keep Jack Wilson and other arbitration stars around. You hate to lose players - fans were terribly demoralized by the loss of Barry Bonds - so you keep the ones you can and, if you have to make choices, I think you keep the position players before you keep the starters and (definitely!) before you keep the relievers.

P.S. What would Wells make as a free agent? The NYT reports that Benson will get about $20M for three years.

Giants claim Mesa

The Bucs put Mesa, as teams do with many veterans, on waivers. Joe Rutter reports the Bucs were talking with the Cubs who could use him. But the Giants put in the claim, maybe to block the Cubs from getting him. Giants general manager Brian Sabean would not make any comment to the Bay area press but they remember Sabean trying to deal for him before the deadline.

It's a win-win situation for the Pirates. If Mesa stays, great, especially if the Giants will give up something of value for his services. If he goes, that's also great. I see a closer-by-committee deal at the start of next year, maybe headed by Torres, and it would be good for player development right now to lose Mesa and thus promote everyone in the 'pen into slightly tougher situations.

Ward has goals

Goal #1 should be 81 wins. I'm surprised that's not the first thing out of every player's mouth when asked about their goals for the rest of the season. It's more than a team goal, right? Joe Rutter reports some talking with Ward at that link.

I saw the river shot and it wasn't that impressive a bomb from where I sat on the third-base side. It was more like a regular home run that was placed perfectly. No doubt my appreciation was colored by the fact that the Astros were pounding the Bucs.

Adios Nashville?

I dunno what's up with Nashville, but it appears to be official, the Bucs are looking into changing their AAA affiliate.

How good is this team?

It's time to find out. Recent numbers are encouraging: as Bob Dvorchak counts today in his notebook, the Bucs are 21-7 in their past 28 home games and 14-6 in their past 20 games against Central Division foes. Time is running out on the goal of a .500 season. As much as that, however, another goal I'd like to see is a winning record at home. A team that can't win at home will never go anywhere.

Thursday, August 26, 2004

the Double Play

It must be one of the best few seconds in all of sports.


What has gotten into Tony La Russa? His charge of "gamesmanship" is the focus of many reports today.

La Russa basically accused Mac of cheating by asking the umpires to bust Julian Tavarez for cheating. Good one, Tony.

Cards in town this weekend

Remember, it's the first-base side that gets the afternoon shade. If you are going Saturday or Sunday and you want to sit in the shade, shoot for Row T and higher in the infield boxes. That should do it.

The Tiger Plan

Baseball Prospectus's Nate Silver just realized that 75 wins is better than 74 wins is better than 73 wins.

I've written about this many times before. It's good to see one of the B-Pro people turning the corner on this most important subject. Only winning courts winning and only winning sells out the stadium.

One of the latest fads or memes or ideas circulating among baseball fans this summer is the value of the out. Don't give them away, people say. Maybe soon we'll all be talking about the value of the win. The best rebuilding strategy is always one designed to win as many games as possible. If a lack of major-league ready rookies necessitates the signing of cheap veterans, so be it.

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

All hail Josh Fogg

I believe.

Ha ha, the AP bet the Unit would beat him and published these photos. Hands down, Josh wins that beauty contest. Randy looks like the town drunk in that one.

Were they pushed?

Will Carroll has an interesting line in his latest installment of Under the Knife, his regular behind-the-scenes take on player injuries for Baseball Prospectus. He questions the need for the Pirates to bring Wells or Burnett back for any part of this season, and concludes with this:

More worrisome for these pitchers and the rest of the Bucs starters is just how far both Wells and Burnett were pushed when it was obvious that something was wrong.

I've learned a lot from Will Carroll. Some of the stuff - such as the difference between a sprain and a strain, or the fact that seriously injured hamstrings never fully heal - I could have and should have learned elsewhere. Without reading his column, however, I'm not sure I would have ever thought to go and learn such things.

Often I read crazy thoughts about the Pirates and usually I just let it go. This charge - that the Bucs overworked Burnett and Wells when they knew (or should have known) they had bum elbows - really puzzles me. In the past, Carroll, like fellow BP writer Joe Sheehan, has indulged a taste for the doom-and-gloom when it comes time to talk about the Pirates. They seem to enjoy being melodramatic with the pessimism, like it gives them an "edge" or a reputation for "hardball." Sometimes I wonder if they are gloating about the Pirates' misfortune - with an immature eagerness to remind everyone that they predicted misfortune the last time they wrote about them. Above all, I don't understand how they fail to see that this is totally at odds with their conquer-the-world business philosophy.

All that said, it's worth investigating this interpretation before it's picked up by other national writers. I don't want to read all throughout the offseason that the Pirates stupidly handled their pitchers if that just isn't the case.

So, did I miss something? When was it "obvious" that something was wrong - physically - with the elbows of Wells and Burnett?

Wells was scratched from his start on the 18th. The Bucs certainly reported the decision as one erring on the side of caution:

"I think he's more fatigued that anything. Backing him up is the smart thing to do. Why risk it? Why take a chance? We're taking every precaution necessary," McClendon said. Pitching coach Spin Williams said the status of the rotation for the Cardinals series is "an hour by hour decision."

Kip had an excellent start on the 7th of August before struggling against Colorado on the 13th. He threw 118 pitches over 8 1/3 innings on the 7th, which is not pushing it, and only threw 88 pitches on the 13th. Was it obvious in the first inning of the Colorado game that Kip's elbow was inflamed?

-Top of the 1st inning
-L Gonzalez grounded out to third.
-R Clayton hit a ground rule double to right.
-T Helton struck out looking.
-V Castilla grounded out to third.

After two hits and two strikeouts in the second inning, Wells came out in the third, struck out the first two batters, and then walked Helton (his first walk, and hardly an unusual one) and gave up a home run to Castilla. Rockies 2, Bucs 1. Wells lost control in the fourth:

-Top of the 4th inning
-P Wilson popped out to third.
-M Holliday singled to center.
-J Closser fouled out to shortstop.
-J Fassero singled to center, M Holliday to second.
-L Gonzalez homered to left, M Holliday and J Fassero scored.
-R Clayton hit by pitch.
-T Helton singled to left, R Clayton to second.
-R Clayton to third on wild pitch by K Wells.
-V Castilla flied out to deep left center.

And only got one out in the fifth.

Bob Dvorchak heard nothing about elbow soreness right after the game. Not until the 18th did we learn that Kip "began experiencing soreness in his right elbow during his most recent start." Were there signs of potential elbow trouble in the start before the Rockies game?

Burnett didn't pitch well before he left the game on August 21st. Never a guy with a ton of velocity, Burnett's control was off and he wasn't getting the ball down. When your rookie control artist starts leaving the ball up, do you remove him from the rotation with the suspicion that he's injured? In his recap of Burnett's last start, Bob Dvorchak reported that "Burnett likely aggravated something with a twisting, off-balance throw after fielding a bunt by Edgar Renteria in the fourth."

What do you think? Should the Pirates have known Wells and Burnett were hurt or going to get hurt? Did the Pirates push either player in some kind of "worrisome" fashion? When was it "obvious" that something was wrong, physically, with these players? (Wells' troubles earlier in the year were not related to his elbow but to his finger tip.) Should the other starters - Oliver Perez, Josh Fogg, Nelson Figueroa, John Van Benschoten - distrust the trainers and coaches, as Carroll advises?

Perhaps Will Carroll has some kind of inside information that's not available to Pirate fans or beat writers like Bob Dvorchak? He makes a serious charge here. Can he back it up? Or is he just blowing smoke?

... 2pm ... maybe Carroll's half right. Joe Rutter reports today that Burnett "had been experiencing elbow soreness for several weeks before he left Saturday's start in St. Louis because of injury."

... 3:30pm ... on cue, Carroll's back today with this:

"I'm not talking about my elbow. I've been told not to." That quote from Pirate pitcher Sean Burnett leaves me, well, a bit cold. It's the second year in a row that Burnett has had an elbow injury at about this point in the season. While an MRI reportedly showed no structural damage, it's also likely that we've seen the last of Burnett on a mound this season. Pirates sources insist it's merely fatigue for the short lefty, but I tried to point out that short had nothing to do with it.

Left me cold too when I saw it, and I admit I've been thinking about it this afternoon between other more important tasks.

So it is abuse, or is it just a case of Burnett not being the most durable starter in the league?

Zach Duke

John Perotto writes about some guy in the minors.

Yawn. High-80s fastball? 20th-round pick? Sounds like Nelson Figueroa.

Optimism and exclamation marks

Check out Joshua Doak's letter (toward the bottom). I should start writing like that!

A Mark McGwire-type power hitter

Paul Meyer delivers the dope on Brad Eldred. I can live with strikeouts when they come with productivity.

Hop in the time machine

Bob Smizik hops in his time machine and sees some strange things eight years from now.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

Game 125: Edgar Gonzalez at Oliver Perez

If we can't take this one tonight, it will be Ray Charles festival time.

The Kip dilemma

I don't understand the arbitration process and look forward to seeing it unfold this off-season so I can get a better handle on it.

Joe Rutter writes about the coming dilemma with Kip Wells. Is he really due for a huge raise? If so, I really don't understand the system.

Pitchers are fickle commodities. If I was the GM and I had to choose two of Jack Wilson, Craig Wilson, and Kip Wells, I'd cut Kip Wells loose. I suppose a non-tender is out of the question. So why not trade him for two or three prospects?

I don't see how the Pirates can afford to pay players big money when the big-money performance hasn't been there. If Kip deserves a huge raise, let another team give it to him.

In a perfect world, we'd have enough money to keep all the players. But I don't think we're in that world.

Bill James on projections

Richard Lederer has been reviewing the history of the Bill James abstracts on his weekend blog. I played thousands of games of Strat-O-Matic in the 1980s - even joined large organized leagues with a draft and all that - but somehow missed the Bill James thing.

Lately there's a tendency in a lot of the baseball discussion that takes place over the internet to obsess with projections. A player like Jack Wilson exceeds all expectations and some people have more faith in a projection system than they have in their own two eyes. Because he exceeds projections, his improvement cannot be believed by some. The impulse should be "Back to the drawing board, we were really wrong in our analysis of that guy's past."

Another player has a dynamite year at Double A but because he is one of the older players in the league, the meaning of that performance is severely discounted since the age does support an optimistic projection of next year's stats. The truth is that performance is performance, and just because a player is a certain age, that doesn't mean that he didn't have all those eye-gouging RBI numbers. The age may temper our expectations since we've rarely seen guys advance far from that age at that station, but you know what, just because it hasn't happened often before doesn't mean it won't happen often in the future. With the greater emphasis on college players and the new reluctance of teams to delay starting a player's arbitration clock, there's no doubt that we will see more 24-year-olds having great seasons at AA that we used to see, say, ten or twenty years ago.

Here's a smart thing that Bill James wrote. I lift it from Rich's blog:

The goal of science—and sabermetrics is a science—is not to predict what will happen but to understand what does happen; predictability attains significance only as a test of knowledge. However well we might speculate about the future, it is an article of faith that that future, once accomplished, will resemble the past far more closely than it resembles any of our speculations about it.

The meaning of stats lies not in their ability to predict the future but in their ability to describe the past. So the primary goal of statistical anaylsis of baseball should not be the accurate prediction of the future stats but the fuller and wiser comprehension of the previous stats. Why? Only one of these goals is within our reach, and the other will never be achieved until the first is met.

Jose Mesa

Brian O'Neill argues for the good old bullpen-by-committee.

I don't believe Mac has an irrational allegiance to having one guy be your closer. In previous years, the Pirates did what they could to inflate Mike Williams' trade value and this meant saying whatever nonsense you had to say to leave him in there when he was struggling. This year, we have Mesa, whose career shows a pretty clear pattern. If you only bring him for save opportunities, he pitches pretty well. If you try to use him as part of a committee, he's a disaster.

All signs point to Mesa not returning next year. Don't be surprised if the Pirates go with a committee next year.

Verron Haynes

I've been waiting patiently to see what Verron Haynes can do with some regular playing time. The PG's Ed Bouchette reports that he'll be the third-down back this year. Haynes was a late bloomer at Georgia who ran with great determination and strength. Maybe this year we'll see if he can bruise some NFL defenses.

More Max Starks

When you are as big as Max Starks, there's always more Max Starks.

Our first impression of Max Starks - just reading his resume - was positive.

Mike Bires of the Beaver County Times and Allegheny Times has more. It's hard not to think more about the story of his father. I'd be shocked, too, to suddenly learn, while in college, that my pop was a Bengal.

Johnny V

Steve Novotney writes up John Van Benschoten. I don't remember Michael Jordan hitting too many big-league home runs.

Like Sean Burnett, Johnny Van Benschoten is a guy that I think will stick with the team. If Burnett can't make it as a starter, he'll make a great left-handed reliever. If Van Benschoten can't make it as a starter, he can be the next Brooks Kieschnick.

JVB looked real good last night.

Nate McLouth and Brad Eldred

Prospect king Scott Rex had this to say about Nate McLouth yesterday. He's recapping the game of the 22nd:

Altoona (PIT) skunked Bowie (BAL), 12-0, as CF Nate McLouth went 2-for-5 with a double, 2 runs scored, and an RBI and 1B Brad Eldred was 3-for-5 with a double, a homer (11), and 6 RBIs. McLouth is one of the toughest outs in the EL. The 22-year-old outfielder leads the EL in hits (150) and is 4th in both batting (.318) and runs scored (80). Eldred has now knocked in an eye-gouging 38 runs in just 24 games with the Curve. He's hitting .278.

The right-handed Eldred is older than most at AA but we won't hold that against him this morning. We need more eye-gouging RBIs, for sure. After demolishing the ball for Florida International University, he didn't set the world on fire in the Sally League last year. But this year has been something else. As Jon Schaeffer, the Hillcats Assistant Broadcaster, wrote in this undated web analysis, "in just 91 games, Eldred had one of the most productive seasons any CL player has had over the last quarter-century."

One thing I don't understand about the "old for Double A" knock. All the time we hear that. Why does it matter so much? It seems like there's no amount of hitting a guy can do at 23 or 24 or 25 at Double A and still be considered, in some people's eyes, as a likely big-league regular. Eldred was 21 when he graduated from college and wasn't good enough to go straight to Double A. After a year and a half of pro ball, he's tearing it up, and since he didn't tear it up immediately as a pro, we write him off?

Since he's finishing his third professional season this year, I do believe the Pirates will have to add him to the 40-man roster or they will lose him in the Rule V draft. Someone correct me if I'm wrong. Unless his defense is terrible, I don't see how we can throw this guy away. Call me crazy, but I'd rather lose Carlos Rivera than Brad Eldred. Rivera's two years older and the fact that he's left-handed hasn't helped him to do much at the big-league level. Why not remove Rivera from the 40-man for Eldred, when that time comes?

Tom Gorzelanny's Pulse

Baseball America's new Prospect Pulse covers Tom Gorzelanny, our second-round pick from last year's draft. Gorzelanny is a left-hander from Triton College, "the smarter choice for higher education":

Lefthander Tom Gorzelanny, profiled recently in Daily Dish, is settling in at high Class A Lynchburg after a rough start. He's won his last three starts and has given up just four runs in 18 innings over that span, striking out 18 and walking just three. "He topped out at 94 mph for me," said one AL scout, "and he's got a solid mound presence. His breaking ball was a power slurve; it's a future plus pitch. He also showed a solid feel and command for his changeup. He was one of the best pitchers I've seen all year."

AL scouts - (eyes rolling) - what do they know.

In other department, BA's Jim Callis revisits the Giles trade.

Monday, August 23, 2004

Game 124: Fossum at Van Benschoten

Deja vu: tonight's crafty lefty at Johnny V matchup is Game 118 all over again.

It only takes one win to get things going in the right direction again.

Our second baseman for some time

From Pete Wickham's report for

Powering up: Second baseman Jose Castillo hit his sixth homer in only 95 games with the Pirates on Friday. Over his last 10 games, he's had three homers and seven extra base hits, while hitting .394 and raising his season average to .250.

"I've worked very hard at hitting with more power," the 22-year-old from Venezuela said of his sessions with hitting coach Gerald Perry. "He has my feet wider so I can move more into the ball. And I've opened my stance more. It's helping me to see the pitches better."

"We knew what he could do in the field, and to be honest, I wasn't expecting a lot of hitting this year," McClendon said. "I think we've got our second baseman for some time."

Brian O'Neill was all over this improvement last week. For a while there it looked like Jose wouldn't hit enough to justify bringing him back as the starter next year. Now Mac's saying, "I think we've got our second baseman for some time." That must be gratifying for Mac since he was the one, if I remember what I read correctly, who lobbied for Castillo starting the season with the team last March.

Regular readers know that I'm a fan of the Monday morning 21-day stats. It provides a consistent way to measure recent performance. In the last three weeks, Castillo's hit .286 / .339 / .551 playing in all but one game. That's 14-for-49 with six extra-base hits, three homers, eight runs, ten RBI, five walks and ten strikeouts. He's not going to win an MVP award hitting like that but that's plenty good for a bottom-of-the-order good-fielding second baseman. Give him another year and maybe he'll score from second on that single by Jason Kendall, too.

Smizik: Keep Ward

I agree. A left-hander who slugs .500 is something this team needs. At $1.3M - Smizik's guess - Ward's a solid gamble. There are about 20 healthy and active big-league sluggers who hit left-handed. Take them from the top and their salaries for 2003 are $18.0M (Bonds), $9.3M (Edmonds), $12.2M (Thome), $11.6M (Helton), $4.6M (Ortiz), $1.3M (Burnitz), $4.2M (Drew), $6.8M (Casey), $10.6M (Abreu), $2.1M (Durazo), $5.3M (Chavez), $7.0M (Matsui), $5.0M (Valentin), $8.2M (Gonzalez), and $4.5M (Koskie). It's not like the Pirates will have a chance to get one of these players in free agency without gambling, as Colorado did with Burnitz. The only affordable guys are pre-arb or in the early years of arbitration eligibility: $450K (Dunn), $317K (Hafner), $550K (Blalock), $326K (Overbay), $375K (Wilkerson). In the minors, the Bucs don't have a left-handed slugger who looks ready to play every day next year.

$1.3M would be too much to gamble on players with other skills (e.g., middle relief). It's not too much to gamble for a player who might give us 500 at-bats of left-handed power.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Home Sweet Home

Good to get the hell out of St. Louis.

It's bad enough playing the Cardinals. Hardly fair when you have to play the umps too.

Game 123: Ryan Vogelsong at Matt Morris

Will the real Ryan Vogelsong please stand up? Game time 2:15pm.