Saturday, June 18, 2005

Game 66: Pirates at Red Sox

Seven o'clock, Dave Williams and Tim Wakefield. This one will be played without umpires.

Friday, June 17, 2005

Game 65: Pirates at Red Sox

Seven o'clock, Josh Fogg and Wade Miller.

Friday

Mike Prisuta says curb your enthusiasm. Lower your expectations is more like it. If you can't have or are made to feel embarassed because you get enthusiastic about a baseball team, that's just wrong. Enthuse away. It's OK to look silly if you're having fun. Baseball is not foreign policy.

Tony Randazzo blew it. Joe Rutter and Dejan Kovacevic have that story. Mike Emeigh has a good theory in the Primer thread for one or the other of the articles: Randazzo was out of position all the way.

My theory is that no one expects to see good infield defense in Yankee stadium these days. The Yankee fans were stunned to see the Bucs turning so many double plays. So a general atmosphere of disbelief also contributed to Randazzo's confusion.

From Dejan Kovacevic's notebook:

From the Pirates' official pregame media notes yesterday: "Pittsburgh's defensive unit has turned 17 double plays in the past eight games. ... It would have been 18 had the first-base umpire made the correct call last night."

Yeah, the blown call sucked, but let's not get whiny about it. Games are not won or lost on the final play alone. The Pirates had numerous chances to put the Yankees away before the blown double-play call.

Craig Wilson won't be back soon, John Perrotto reports. He also notes that Doumit won't play any first base at the major-league level. Long term, you want him to work out as a catcher. But you also want his bat in the lineup 130 to 150 games. That's not catcherish. Either he gets some playing time at other positions, suddenly learns to be a great, every day catcher, or you move him to a corner.

Mark Redman is the player's choice for All-Star, Dejan Kovacevic reports. Of course, Tony La Russa will make the pick, and I expect he'll figure out a way to make the pick in some fashion that belittles his division rivals and softens them up for the next series with St. Louis. I'm guessing he picks Matt Lawton or Jose Mesa before he does anything to dispel the doubts that cling, for most non-Pirate fans, to the rest of the roster.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Game 63: Pirates at Yankees

Seven o'clock. Mark Redman, Kevin Brown.

Party like it's 1997

Today the Bucs are 30-32, two games under .500. On this date in 1997, the Pirates were also two games under .500. And in first place. Despite getting badly outscored over the course of the season, they hung near .500 the whole year and were not eliminated from the playoffs until the final weekend.

The year did not begin well. In December 1996, Cam Bonifay traded Jay Bell and Jeff King to the Royals. Royals GM Herk Robinson gloated about the deal and within a month, it was the consensus opinion of GMs, sports writers, and Pittsburgh fans that Bonifay had been fleeced. Rather than trade them separately and get a greater return, Bonifay had opted to reward their loyalty to the team by trading Bell and King, best friends, to the same team.

The Bucs cut their payroll to $9M, ten percent less than Albert Belle's salary. Because the Pirates stud shortstop prospect, Chad Hermansen, was not yet ready for the bigs, the Bucs signed Kevin Elster for $1.65M of that $9M.

Everyone predicted the Pirates would lose 100 games. The Pirates brought 70 players to camp in March and new manager Gene Lamont picked through the scrubs to assemble a roster. One of those NRIs was Kevin Young, a 27-year-old player who was cut by the Pirates and the Royals in 1996.

The team worried about attendance. In 1994, the Bucs had the league's worst attendance record. 1995 was somewhat better, but the front office, led by 34-year-old Kevin McClatchy, was looking forward to a November 1997 referendum on public financing for new stadiums for the Pirates and the Steelers. The Pirates marketed the team as hard-working regular stiffs. Television ads showed players taking public transportation to the ballpark.

April was bitter cold. Temperatures were in the 30s and 40s and fans were not coming to the park. Consecutive games in mid-month brought crowds of 6900, 6800, 6000, and 9000.

By the end of April, it was clear that the starting rotation was pretty good. It consisted of Esteban Loaiza, Steve Cooke, Francisco Cordova, Jason Schmidt, and Jon Lieber. Jason Schmidt struggled in April. Jon Lieber struggled all year with left-handed hitters. Loaiza, Cooke, and Cordova, however, were surprisingly good. These five players would combine to start 157 of the Pirates' 162 games. Al Martin and Jason Kendall emerged as the obvious nucleus of the team going forward.

In early May, the Pirates were hovering below first place. The NL Central was appallingly weak; the Cubs began the year with thirteen losses. After being a half game out for about a week, the Pirates moved into a first-place tie on May 13. The bottom clubs in the five-team NL Central were St. Louis (16-21), Cincinnati (11-25), and Chicago (11-25).

They were in and out of first, within a game or two, for all of May and most of June, despite losing key position players - Kevin Elster, Al Martin and Jermaine Allensworth - to injury. On June 15, at 32-34, they shared first place with the 33-35 Astros. The 31-35 Cardinals were a game out. The Pirates had been outscored 274 to 302 in those 66 games. On June 21, they were 6 games under .500 and had been outscored, 293 to 340. They were two and half games out of first place.

For the final series before the All-Star break, the Pirates travelled to St. Louis. They began the series two games behind the division-leading Cardinals, who boasted a 41-41 record. The Pirates swept the four-game series and went into the All-Star break at 43-43, with sole possesion of first place.

Pirate fans took notice. On Saturday, July 12, the Pirates sold out Three Rivers Stadium. Maybe it was being in first place. Maybe it was fireworks night. 44,000 fans watched Francisco Cordova and Ricardo Rincon no-hit the Astros. The Pirates moved back into a tie for first place.

A .500 club, the Bucs had been outscored 369 to 413. But the starting rotation was solid, the division was weak, and the Pirates played well enough. They won big games - huge games - in dramatic fashion. Speaking to the national media in mid-July, Gene Lamont emphasized that the Pirates could only hope the Astros and the Cardinals continued to play mediocre baseball. At the July 31 trade deadline, the only news involving Pirates players was the season-ending injury to power-hitting prospect Ron Wright. Post-Gazette writer Dejan Kovacevic believed Bonifay had been looking for a left-handed starter such as Wilson Alvarez, John Smiley, or Terry Mulholland, but no trade went down. Despite the good run, the generous division, and the need to make a good impression on fans and voters, the front office was not convinced it made sense to diverge from the long-term rebuilding plan with 2001 as the goal. The Cardinals, on the other hand, sent Eric Ludwick, T.J. Mathews, and Blake Stein to the Oakland Athletics for Mark McGwire.

By the end of August, Cam Bonifay's national reputation was considerably higher than it had been the week after the Jay Bell trade. Rod Beaton reported that while the 1997 Pirates were clearly not that good, the team was sure to get better over the next few years. He pointed to prospects Ron Wright, Abraham Nunez, Craig Wilson, Jose Pett, Chad Hermansen, Aramis Ramirez, and Kris Benson. A month later Beaton would declare the Pirates the USA Today organization of the year.

On the last weekend of August, Kevin Polcovich, the rookie shortstop filling in for Kevin Elster, severely sprained his ankle. Bonifay acquired 34-year-old Shawon Dunston, in a conditional deal, on August 31. This pleased the players, who knew that, no matter how bad they were, they were only a few games out of first. And this pleased the fans, who were enjoying the seaon. The Bucs drew 1.7 million fans in 1997, well over the 1.2 million mark McClatchy proposed, at the start of the season, as the unlikely point at which the franchise would break even.

The Pirates finished the season five games out. The Braves swept a best-of-five division series from the Astros. Wayne Huizenga's Marlins won the World Series.

Bonifay devoted the first part of his off-season to protecting the organization from the evil expansion draft. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposed sales-tax increase for stadiums in November, but Pittsburgh politicians from both parties took seriously the possibility that McClatchy would exercise his mid-February option. The city would then have nine months to find a new owner or McClatchy could move the team. The odds of finding a new owner in such short period of time looked close to zero. With Pittsburgh fans eagerly awaiting the 1998 season, their politicians worked with unusual bipartisan cooperation to quickly find a way to fund the stadiums. Bob Smizik hailed the March solution as "the dawn of a glorious future in Pittsburgh sports."

No one hailed the 1998 Pirates as front-runners for the NL Central come March. Yet everyone remembered 1997 as evidence of what good can happen when team success is put before individual success. And no one predicted the Pirates would lose 100 games.

Bonifay stayed the course with the long-term rebuilding. The only player of significance signed in the 1997-1998 off-season was Mike Williams, who contributed fifty very good innings of middle relief while earning 350K. (He didn't close for the Pirates until 1999.) The Pirates wanted to re-sign Dunston, but he wanted $1M per year, so they let them him go. Jason Schmidt was re-signed to a three-year, $4.5M deal. That and other raises brought the payroll to $14M. Despite the higher payroll, in late March the 1998 Pirates projected to be younger than the 1997 Pirates.

Here are my questions.

So what are the lessons of 1997 that are relevant to 2005?

And how does the 1997 team compare to the 2005 team?

Here's your Baseball Reference link for the 1997 Pirates' final stats.

Monday, June 13, 2005

McCutchen signs

That was quick.

No selling, maybe buying

Dejan Kovacevic covers David Littlefield's answer to the usual question of what he'll be doing toward the deadline.

You want to be on the market and you buy, even if the team is only at .500, if there's a great bargain. Teams will do ridiculous things in mid-July. You have to be prepared to take advantage.

Sunday, June 12, 2005

Portland hearts Dave Littlefield

No kidding!

The ability to handle ticklish situations, to confront problems as they arise, and to maintain dignity for all involved are qualities that have served Littlefield well as he climbed baseball's ladder from Portland Little Leaguer to minor-league catcher to major-league executive.

Throw in a sharp mind, keen judge of talent and fierce competitive streak (often hidden behind a self-effacing manner) and you begin to understand why Littlefield, who turns 45 next week, holds one of the most prestigious jobs in professional baseball.

Happy Birthday, Dave.

Game 61: Devil Rays at Pirates

1:35pm. Take your brooms to the stadium. Mark Hendrickson, another lefty, and Josh Fogg. Mac will probably run out the exact same lineup, giving Lawton a nice three-day rest for New York and Boston.

The difference a day makes

The NL Central according to the BP playoff odds, my new favorite toy. Here's to the Yankees. May they pound the Cardinals again today.

saturday

NLC W L Pct3 Avg W Avg L Champs WildCd Playoffs
STL 39 21 .545 95.0 67.0 67.50156 14.64454 82.14610
CHC 32 27 .551 88.7 73.3 23.71137 23.78617 47.49754
PIT 29 30 .506 81.0 81.0 3.99308 6.89986 10.89294
MIL 28 32 .522 81.6 80.4 4.49698 7.82318 12.32016
HOU 24 35 .472 72.1 89.9 .23098 .54398 .77496
CIN 24 36 .444 68.7 93.3 .06554 .11895 .18449

sunday, after winning 18-2

NLC W L Pct3 Avg W Avg L Champs WildCd Playoffs
STL 39 22 .539 93.7 68.3 60.14086 15.53546 75.67632
CHC 33 27 .556 89.5 72.5 30.29267 21.18587 51.47853
PIT 30 30 .511 81.8 80.2 5.50215 7.11767 12.61982
MIL 28 33 .517 80.4 81.6 3.59357 4.97584 8.56941
HOU 25 35 .478 73.1 88.9 .36191 .59350 .95541
CIN 25 36 .450 69.8 92.2 .10889 .14961 .25851

Mark Madden: The Pirates are a bad team and that's just how it is

Brian in the comments reports:

Mark Madden is on right now, and he just said, 'The Pirates are on a good run but they are just what the Yankees need.. The Yankees are a good team and the Pirates are a bad team and that's just how it is.'

How 'bout that?