Saturday, July 22, 2006

Randa and Burnitz off the bench

Joe Randa has been a great bench player, so the Pirates would do well to keep him. They need to practice winning if they are ever going to win, and there is no time like the present for winning.

The assumption seems to be that you don't pay bench players big money, and Randa makes big money, so of course the Pirates must trade him.

This puts the cart before the horse. Randa's contract is a done deal. Now that he's lost his starting job, it's time to find some use for him which maximizes his value. Not to get a return on the investment of his salary, but to get a contribution toward a winning team. And Randa has shown he can do this.

Perhaps you don't sign him to that salary with the intention of using him in a part-time role. I only half agree with that thinking. It's not my money so I wouldn't care; if I can get the walls for cheap, I'll spend extra on the decorative windows. The point is to make the best team you can make, and that is not the same thing as maximizing the value you get for your payroll dollars at every single position.

If I was the GM and I was put on a specific budget, I would spend that whole budget every year. I'd stock the team with as many young pre-arb guys as possible, and I'd make all these guys starters. Fatigue is not as much of an issue with them, and they stand to develop more rapidly with the playing time. Then I'd spend whatever I have left on veteran players to come off the bench and (this is important) look good doing so.

I would take two or three bench spots and make them cozy sinecures for 300 home run guys who clearly can't cut it on a daily basis any more. I would invest those positions with honor and dignity, which means a lot of money.

Look at Randa's splits. He has a 1057 OPS in 27 July at-bats. He's been a lousy pinch-hitter (2 for 11), but he's been very productive starting every third day.

As with the case of Jeromy Burnitz and Sean Casey, was this not predictable? I was impressed with the potential of rotating Burnitz, Casey, and Craig Wilson through two starting spots. Too bad I underestimated the team's capacity to screw up that potential. All three of those guys have been better in less than full time work. And does that not make sense? One is old, and one is "injury-prone" which I guess means not "a tissue problem," as Will Carroll suggests, but a fatigue problem (are injuries not more common when a player is tired?). The third is lumbering. The abilities of these players clearly diminishes once they cross a certain threshold or concentration of PT over time. Of course those guys, to a man, would disagree; if I weighed 400 pounds, I'd still insist I could run relays with a 22-year-old shortsop if I wanted to.

If I'm the GM or the manager, I don't let the players tell me when they need their PT cut back--I let their performance do that. I don't go out to the mound and say, "Pedro, you looked gassed. Can you get this guy out?" I say, "Pedro, you did good today. Now go take a shower, you smell bad." Everyone plays only with a full charge in their battery, and it is performance, not the players's piehole, which tells us how charged they are. If an older guy or a thicker guy or a distracted guy is slumping, I assume he needs some time off. And I don't mean one day game after a night game--I mean, he starts every other day for a week or two.

The Luis Gonzalez story and the better-known Shea Hillenbrand story suggest that players have this idea that it's some great insult to not start on any given day. That's just wrong. I would take that out of them. There's more than one template for a winning baseball team. If the Pirates work very hard to mainly start young, pre-arb players, they ought to be able to save enough payroll that they can pay more than anyone for bench players--and still have a lower overall payroll (if that's necessary).

The other thing that happens when you wear out the old guys, or force them into a situation where they must take all kinds of uppers on a daily basis to "get up" for another game, is that you embarrass them. Jim Tracy has humiliated Jeromy Burnitz this year. Burnitz's career might be over, he's been laid so low. And once they are embarrassed, they are in no position to provide the wise counsel or coaching or mentoring everyone expects they might impart to the younger players.

If the Pirates had hired Jeromy Burnitz for pinch-hitting in clutch situations, and for starting two or three times a week, then I have no doubt that Burnitz would be the proud owner of decent stats. And he could be playing the role of the crusty grizzled old sailor who gets off his ass only to deliver a big hit or have a big day. Instead, he's now in a position where he's clearly been a liability and a prime cause of the team's one-in-three winning percentage. He's embarrassed; he's humiliated; he's exactly what the young players do not want to be when they grow up.

Burnitz and Randa should be welcome the rest of the year--in roles that are reduced to the point that they are effective when summoned for duty. Sean Casey would be a better player, with better stats and, I would guess, more good influence on the younger players, if only Tracy more often started Craig Wilson at first.

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