October 25, 2010

The 2011 Starting Rotation

The Pirates' starting pitching was rather terrible in 2010. Collectively our starters went 34-84 with a 5.28 ERA. Opposing hitters (including pitchers) hit .297/.354/.476 against Pirates starters. Needless to say changes are needed in the rotation.

There are three guys definitely returning, and Pittsburgh should look outside the organization for more help. There's no trade bait worth trading so that means signing two free agents. Any major league team needs a legitimate (non-Morton) starter every time out.

James McDonald was nothing short of a revelation after the Dotel trade. He went 4-5, 3.42 in two months and showed flashes of dominance despite the fact that this was his first real shot at starting in the majors. All three of McDonald's pitches had positive values. I expect him to add a fourth pitch in the off-season and be as good or better in 2011.

Ross Ohlendorf went 1-11, 4.07 in 2010. He pitched well but was probably the most unlucky starter in the majors as he got no run support and was injured three different times including two DL trips. The injuries are worrisome, but this was Ross's second straight solid season and there's no reason not to have him in the 2011 rotation.

Paul Maholm went 9-15, 5.10 in 2010 which was his worst year so far. Overall his numbers are a respectable 47-59, 4.48 in six seasons. The Pirates' defense was much worse in 2010 than in previous years which may partially explain his off year. Nevertheless, he's going to have to be better in 2011. Maholm is set to earn $5.75 million next year, so the best thing to do is chalk up 2010 as an off year and hope for better results.

Pitching their way out of a job were Charlie Morton (2-12, 7.57) and Zach Duke (8-15, 5.72). Unquestionably Morton has good stuff, but he proved in 2010 that he is just too unreliable to pitch in the major leagues. People have argued this point but it is unfathomable to me that anyone wants to bring him back. Duke was too hittable to be worth going to arbitration with and should be non-tendered.

Jeff Karstens (3-10, 4.92) and Brian Burres (4-5, 4.99) can start and relieve and pitch in AAA and the majors, but simply aren't good enough to be Top 5 guys. They'll be valuable when someone gets hurt but are basically below average pitchers. They shouldn't be in the five-man rotation on Opening Day.

Daniel McCutchen (2-5, 6.12) and Brad Lincoln (1-4, 6.66) proved that they are AAA pitchers.

The Pirates aren't going to sign Cliff Lee, but pitching is unpredictable and every year there are teams that get a great performance out of guys who sign for between $2 and $4 million. Here are the two guys who I would round out the rotation with:

Rich Harden (5-5, 5.58) made $6.5 million on a one year deal and will certainly make much less in 2011 after starting only 18 games and pitching poorly. He'll be 29 in 2011 and has a career ERA of 3.63 with over a strikeout an inning. He's also been injured every year for the past six years - that of course is a concern but I would rather have a guy who gets strikeouts when healthy than Zach Duke. Despite his terrible 2011, I think Harden is a good bet to dominate teams in the NL Central as long as he can stay healthy. I also think he could be had on a one-year deal for $3.5 million.

Kevin Correia (10-10, 5.40) was hit hard in 2010 after a great 2009 year. Correia posted a sub-4.00 ERA in three of four previous seasons and has strikeout ability and durability. He'll only be 30, and all indications are that he had terrible luck in 2010. If he continues to strike out seven batters per nine innings with good control and durability, he's well worth the $2 million he'll sign for.

October 23, 2010

Gibbons, Macha Out of Consideration - Which Candidates Remain?

The Boston Globe is reporting that Ken Macha is out of the running for the Pirates manager job. This of course comes as a surprise to me because I expected Macha to be the guy. But I have to trust any newspaper that is primarily circulated by guys who buy the whole stack of papers out of a vending machine for 50 cents at 6 in the morning and then stand on the corner, surrounded by stacks of newspapers, selling them for 50 cents all day.

John Gibbons asked the Pirates Thursday to remove him from consideration. The original front-runner Eric Wedge signed with the Mariners. The other guys the Pirates interviewed were:

Dale Sveum - The '08 Brewers fired Ned Yost and installed Sveum as manager with only two weeks left in the season. Under Sveum the Brewers won six of their last seven games to make the playoffs for the first time in 26 years. Then they fired him and he hasn't managed since. Sveum seems like a possibility and would provide an important link to the amazing '97 Pirates.
Carlos Tosca - Tosca's father was an ex-girlfriend's pediatrician, which sounds legit until you realize that (a) he's still practicing medicine even now and his son is 57 years old, and (b) her parents chose this doctor by picking the cheapest doctor in a 2.7 million person metropolitan area.

Tosca interviewed with the Pirates on the 14th and then agreed to be the Braves' bench coach on the 15th. I am sure he could get out of the Braves commitment but the timing suggests his Pirates interview didn't go well.

Jeff Banister - Banister is a career baseball man with the Pirates, having been in the organization since 1994. He never managed above A ball, so this would be a curious hire. One would think the Pirates would have had him manage the Indianapolis team, or at least Altoona, if they were grooming Banister for the major league job. It seems like he just got this interview as a courtesy for his 17 years in the organization.

Bo Porter - Porter never managed above A ball and was just fired by the Diamondbacks after only one year on their coaching staff. I consider him a longshot for the job, especially since he is rumored to be the frontrunner for the Marlins job. The Marlins have often chosen unconventional candidates for their manager job; the Pirates have not.

Possibly interviewed was...

Bobby Valentine - The Pirates denied reports that Valentine interviewed for the job, although they have denied reports before which then turned out to be true. Really the Pirates would be honored to have Valentine considering them. Remember Valentine's 2000 Mets? Here was their starting lineup in Game One of the World Series.

Timo Perez RF
Edgardo Alfonzo 2B
Mike Piazza DH
Todd Zeile 1B
Robin Ventura 3B
Benny Agbayani LF
Jay Payton CF
Todd Pratt C
Mike Bordick SS
Al Leiter P

Even in the worst of times, the Pirates never had to resort to having a girl batting fifth and playing third base. Valentine is clearly the best candidate here. I've read that he wears out his welcome, yet he managed over six years for both teams he's worked for.

Many news sources have speculated about...

Tony Pena - Pena is a coach for the Yankees. A lot of sites have theorized that the Pirates were waiting for the Yankees to be eliminated so they could finally interview Pena. They've got their wish, but really? This is a guy who has had one managing job, which ended because he resigned effective immediately on May 10 of a season without even talking to the team's general manager in advance. I support his hiring only if he is immediately traded for Andy Van Slyke.

October 16, 2010

Managerial Search - Ken Macha

Multiple news outlets are now reporting that Eric Wedge will manage the Mariners next year. Less obvious is the fact that Ken Macha will manage the Pirates.

For whatever reason, the Pirates really look up to the Indians and Brewers organizations. With Wedge off the market, Macha becomes the leading candidate for the Pirates job.As an opening point, I'm sure no one is unfamiliar with his glorious Pirates career, but allow me to recap it. He came up in 1974 as a third catcher in September, and hit an unbelievable .600 in five at-bats down the stretch. In a pennant race! Unfortunately, the Pirates converted him into a corner infield/corner outfield utility player. He hit .274/.317/.316 in 1977, .212/.354/.269 in 1978, and was a Montreal Expo in time to watch the '79 World Series on TV.

Resurfacing in 2003, Macha managed the A's for four years and won between 88 and 96 games each year. With Tim Hudson in Atlanta and Rich Harden making only nine starts due to injury, the 2006 A's won 93 games, won their division and won their first round playoff series. Billy Beane fired Macha as soon as the ALCS was over. The reason was rumored to be a personality conflict, surprising in light of the fact that the primary aspect of Macha's personality is "lack of a personality."

And this brings us to my enduring image of Ken Macha: Ken Macha standing in the Brewers dugout with no facial expression while a pitcher gets absolutely rocked on the mound. A's fans had criticized Macha for not pulling pitchers when they clearly didn't have it in one game. With the Brewers, he used pitchers who clearly didn't have it for two seasons! Mercifully that's all the time it took until he was Parrad, Suppaned and Bushed out of a job.

And that brings us to the upcoming 2011 season. Macha is from Monroeville and played for the Pirates in their glory decade. That's enough for him to get any job in Pittsburgh. In retrospect it's shocking that he's not already Chief Financial Officer of H.J. Heinz.

When Tim Hudson was beating the Angels 4-1, nobody realized that he would still be in the game for 110 pitches if he was Randy Wolf out there throwing in a 7-7 game. Jim Leyland could smoke 60 cigarettes in the time it takes Ken Macha to get around to his first mound visit. As your 2011 World Championship manager, you'll wonder at the end of the season if Macha really managed at all.

October 13, 2010

Managerial Search - Eric Wedge

The Pirates interviewed Ken Macha and Jeff Bannister yesterday for their open managerial job. They previously interviewed Eric Wedge, Bo Porter and John Gibbons for the position. The search may not be over, but five is a typical number so I wouldn't be surprised if these are the only guys interviewed.

Let's look at Eric Wedge since I think either he or Macha will get the job. I lived in Cleveland and probably watched/listened to no less than 150 Indians games a year in 2003-05 so I am pretty familiar with him.

Wedge managed the Cleveland Indians from 2003-2009 before being fired.

The Tribe was a contender from 1994-2001, then broke things up to rebuild after a poor first half in 2002. Wedge came in in 2003 and presided over a young team that included pitchers C.C. Sabathia and Cliff Lee but a Jody Gerut-led offense. By 2005 the Tribe was again a contender. The '05 edition, now featuring a talented offense including Grady Sizemore, Victor Martinez and Travis Hafner, barely missed the playoffs thanks to a final-week collapse and finished 93-69. Wedge was AL Manager of the Year in 2007 when the team finished 96-66 and nearly made the World Series. But injuries and trades derailed any chance at success in 2008 and 2009, leading to Wedge's firing. He has surfaced this year as a candidate for almost every open job.

In-Game Strategy
Strategically Wedge rarely would bunt, hit and run, or put on plays at all really. This was most apparent with stealing bases. Coco Crisp for example attempted 35 steals in 75 games this year at age 30. That's more than he attempted in a full season under Wedge when he was much faster. Franklin Gutierrez stole 25 bases this year but at most nine bases for Wedge.

This style is similar to that of John Russell. Both men prefer not to take risks which may induce outs. This style is also something the small ball-loving Pirates fan base does not like, even though it produces more runs.

Pitcher Usage
Wedge is pretty strong here and has gotten a lot out of his pitchers. Everyone has a set role on the staff. There are five starters and that is it, really, unless one gets hurt or is laughably bad. In the bullpen, everyone has a defined role which barely changes. There is a situational lefty, a seventh inning guy, an eighth inning guy, an Established Closer, etc. Rafael Betancourt had a 1.47 ERA in 2007 and never could win the closer's job. Rest assured that Joel Hanrahan would be Wedge's closer by virtue of his 20 career saves - unless a player is brought in who has 40.

Lineups and Bench Usage
Wedge strongly prefers to go with a set lineup and strongly favored veterans. His regular third baseman Aaron Boone was hitting .193/.252/.349 for a contending team on July 6, 2005. He hit poorly the following year too and he never lost the job until he was injured over a year later.

Maybe Boone is a bad example, but look at Victor Martinez. He missed 89 games in 2008 and only hit two home runs all year due to injuries. In 2009 he played more than ever before. He became a part-time first baseman, part-time catcher, but started 98 of 102 games before being traded. Martinez had a good year that year but this can't be unrelated to his 2010 injuries.

Brandon Phillips has been one of the five or ten best second basemen in baseball since 2006. Why not earlier? After a poor 2003 when he was rushed to the majors, Wedge only would let him bat a total of 33 more times. He used up one of four bench spots on a contending team in 2005 for weeks while Wedge just simply refused to play him.

This is the reason I prefer Wedge is not hired for the Pirates. There is no chance the Pirates will have eight guys next year who deserve to be full-time starters. Be sure that if Wedge were here, Akinori Iwamura would have played much longer than he did if not the whole season. Ronny Cedeno will never lose the shortstop job if Wedge is here, simply because he is an experienced shortstop.

Wedge is certainly less laid back than John Russell, although I would disagree with reports that he's "intense." However, his teams consistently played better in the second halves of seasons, and normally best in September whether they were in contention or not. Wedge is also quite loyal and is willing to work in tandem with his general manager. Except for Omar Vizquel in 2004 there were never any questions about players trying their best for Wedge's teams.

Eric Wedge deserves another managing job, but it should not be with the Pirates. There is no point in having a manager who prefers veterans come in to manage a youth-laden team. I don't want to see whatever marginal vets are on the roster blocking any talented young players, particularly on the pitching staff.

October 6, 2010

Playoffs start today

The Major League Baseball playoffs start today, and alas, it's the 17th consecutive time they will be contested without the Pirates' participation. Yet playoff baseball, four hour games or not, brings with it enough drama and excitement that I'm already excited for the Pirates' 2011 WFC run. You owe it to yourself as a baseball fan to follow this postseason.

Rangers at Rays
Game 1, 1:37 p.m. today

The Rangers (90-72) perenially field one of baseball's best scoring teams, and were fourth in this year's AL in runs. Josh Hamilton (.359/.411/.653) was ridiculous this year and would have been the MVP if not for injuries - but it's unclear how healthy he is heading into this series. Veterans Vlad Guerrero (.300/.345/.496) and Mike Young (.284/.330/.444) are proving the value of brevity in writing, as they played for perennial losers back when they were Vladimir and Michael. The Rangers give the ball to Cliff Lee (12-9, 3.18) who put up one of the best postseasons in history last year.

I remember mocking the move at the time, but dropping the 'Devil' from their name propelled Tampa into perennial contenders, 96-66 this year. Carl Crawford (.307/.356/.495) and Evan Longoria (.294/.372/.507) lead an offense that somehow scored better than 800 runs despite Ben Zobrist (.238/.346/.353) and Carlos Pena (.196/.325/.407) being complete busts. David Price (19-6, 2.72) established himself as Tampa's ace this year and deservingly starts Game 1.

With the exception of Indian Shores Beach, I've had quite a few personal disagreements with the Tampa Bay area, so it's hard to be objective here. Bay to Bay is a nice road name, but I'm taking Cliff Lee and the Rangers in this one. After a 2009 postseason in which Lee went 4-0, 1.56, I find it hard to pick against him. For the series though, I see the Rays winning in five.

Reds at Phillies
Game 1, 5:07 p.m. tonight

Pittsburgh saw a lot of the Reds (91-71) and presuming we can pretend none of their fans are also Cincinnati Bearcats fans, they're one of the nice stories this year. Joey Votto (.324/.424/.600) is the presumptive MVP and leads a strong, deep lineup that led the NL in run scoring. Scott Rolen (.285/.358/.497) hasn't hit so well since his 2004 career year, and young outfielder Jay Bruce (.281/.353/.493) is a defensive standout and a strong power/speed threat on offense. On the mound, the Reds feature a deep bullpen but no clear #1 starter. Thus they'll go with Edinson Volquez (4-3, 4.31), by far the least accomplished Game One starter but also one who strikes out more than a batter an inning.

Unfortunately for Cincinnati, the Padres' late season losing streak gave the wild card to Atlanta forcing the Reds to face the Phillies (97-65). This might be a last hurrah year for Philadelphia as their top hitter Jayson Werth (.296/.388/.532) will no doubt be in navy blue pinstripes next spring. Chase Utley (.275/.387/.445) and Ryan Howard (.276/.353/.505) both had poor seasons by their standards, great by anyone else's, while Carlos Ruiz (.302/.400/.447) quietly became the league's second best hitting catcher. The Phillies give the ball to Roy Halladay (21-10, 2.44), who will certainly win his fourth Cy Young. The bullpen is still a little suspect but less so than last year.

You have to pick the Phillies in this game as there's no sign yet that Halladay is mortal. And I'm picking Phillies in four for this series.

Yankees vs. Twins
Game 1, 8:37 p.m. tonight

Target Field hosts its first ever playoff game tonight in a rematch of last year's series - memorably decided in favor of the Yankees on one of 4,000 blown calls in the playoffs. You know the Yankees (95-67) - Alex Rodriguez (.270/.341/.506), Derek Jeter (.270/.340/.370), Mark Teixeira (.256/.365/.481), and Robinson Cano (.319/.381/.534) again are the core. If those first three guys' numbers looked low to you, it's because we're dealing with another aging team that like the Phillies may have their best chance at another title this year. CC Sabathia (21-7, 3.18) gets the ball and is hard to hit until you realize his given name is 'Carsten Charles'.

The Twins (94-68) were sputtering along this year until losing the MVP-caliber bat of Justin Morneau (.345/.437/.618) from the middle of their lineup. Freed of that encumbrance, they went on a tear and won the AL Central easily. Jim Thome (.283/.412/.627) of Aurora, Ohio, the best clean power hitter of our time, had an unbelievable year while Joe Mauer (.327/.402/.469) diminished from MVP form to mere "best catcher in the league" form. The Twins go with Francisco Liriano (14-10, 3.62) for Game 1.

I want the Twins to win this more than anything, but it's hard to pick against the Evil Empire. My head is going with the Yankees in this game and Yankees in four for the series. The time will come when this gang can't get it together in the postseason, but they're only a year older than last year when everybody played the best ball of their lives.

October 4, 2010

The End of Russell

Connie Mack's record 50 straight years managing one team is safe, as the Pirates announced today that manager John Russell has been fired. His teams lost an unbelievable 299 games in three years. Nixon got re-elected, but no major league manager is going to survive that performance.Not that that record was John Russell's fault. Injuries and trades too often left him fielding a lineup of Bixlers and Churches, calling the bullpen to warm up Osorias and Ledezmas, and in general rarely having more than 15 true major leaguers on the 25-man roster.

The finest single season in baseball history is probably Babe Ruth's 1921, when he hit .378/.512/.846 with 59 home runs, 171 RBI and 177 runs while stealing 17 bases. Put him in right field on the 2010 Pirates instead of Lastings Milledge, and you have a 72-90 team. Yet many members of the Pirates fan base still insist that John Russell has been the problem with this team, that he's not getting enough from his talent.

In fact, Russell was brought in primarily to develop young talent with his teaching skills. He achieved that goal this year with Walker, McCutchen, Tabata, Alvarez, and McDonald. But Cedenos don't become Honus Wagners, and straight fastballs with no movement do become extra base hits. The Texans lost at the Alamo.

The Pirates had to fire John Russell, to be sure. 105 losses is always going to cause a change in management, and bringing back the same guys creates a perception that it's OK. J.R. will collect his full salary next year and he'll find some job in baseball for as many seasons as he wants to work, but this is probably it for him as a major league manager. I can't help but think he deserved a better chance.

October 3, 2010

2010 Pirates Awards

Not everyone on the Pirates was terrible this season. Before we turn, mercifully, to the 2011 Pirates, and because everyone cares what some random asshole thinks, let's give out some awards.

Most Valuable Player
Andrew McCutchen

McCutchen answered any questions remaining after his rookie season, hitting .286/.365/.449 while scoring 94 runs. That's 16% of the team's runs. He got 56 extra base hits, stole 33 bases, and drew 70 walks. He showed good range in center field with a flair for the spectacular play. He proved his durability, playing 154 games and starting 152 despite dealing with several injuries in the second half. He also overcame a summer slump to post the best month of the season in September/October when he hit .324/.411/.519. He drastically cut down on strikeouts as the year progressed. It was a really solid age 23 season from a star who is a breakout candidate for 2011.
Honorable Mention: Neil Walker

Most Valuable Pitcher
Evan Meek

Meek came out of nowhere to become a bona fide relief ace. He was unhittable in the first half, maintaining an ERA below 1.00 as late as July 9. Incredibly, national commentators claimed Meek shouldn't be in the All-Star Game when he entered the game with a 1.11 ERA. He had a solid second half that only looked unimpressive when compared to his first half, finishing 5-4 with a 2.14 ERA in 80 innings as batters hit only .185 against him for the season. Evan also was perfect in four ninth inning save opportunities.
Honorable Mention: James McDonald

Best Rookie
Neil Walker

Neil started the year not even ranked among Pittsburgh's Top 20 prospects, but he quickly changed that by hitting .321/.392/.560 at Indianapolis to start the season. Promoted to the Pirates in late May, Walker emerged as a legit top of the order line drive hitter with a batting line of .296/.349/.462. Though he had success early in the season as a free swinger, he worked to correct that tendency and ended up drawing 14 of his 34 walks in the season's final 21 games. He showed a good arm, decent range and sound decision making skills despite it being his first year at second base.
Honorable Mention: Pedro Alvarez

October 2, 2010

Accepting Mediocrity

Charlie Morton is in the midst of a good game tonight. I don't want to see him pitch another one.

Morton entered tonight 2-11 with a 7.94 ERA in 16 starts. Those numbers aren't just bad, they're comically bad. By the end of tonight he'll have his ERA down to 7.50. I know it's a recession but there's no need to repeat the numbers of the 1930 Phillies.

Many fans, seemingly forgetting the automatic loss that each of Morton's first half starts was, apparently are willing to give him a shot at the 2011 rotation. Why?

I posted this seemingly innocuous comment on a local radio personality's game thread: "I hope to not see him in 2011. I take no positives from a season of 7+ ERA."

One would think it is uncontroversial that a 7.50 ERA season is bad. Oh, but I was wrong. The universal chorus said that Morton should come back due to his stuff.

Even looking at his career year, 2009, that Huntington & Co. hearken back to - what was it? A 4.55 ERA and 1.46 WHIP as batters hit .276/.354/.407 off him. That's the best he's done ever.

Fastball velocity is nice when that fastball isn't landing in the right field bleachers. Here we are with a guy who has a 6 ERA over 50 career starts now, over 250 innings. A good - no, a mediocre - team would farm him out and sign someone, anyone, so that Charlie Morton is not in the 2011 rotation. Let's see if the Pirates are that team.