November 30, 2010

Notes: Rockies Re-Sign De La Rosa

Odds and ends from the past few days...

Free Agent Update
  • Jorge de la Rosa (8-7, 4.22), a pitcher who the Pirates reportedly wanted to sign, has returned to the Rockies on a three year, $32 million deal. He would have been a nice piece for the Pirates rotation.
  • Carl Pavano (17-11, 3.75) is expected to decline the Twins' arbitration offer. With most of the other top starters signed, Pavano now is clearly the second best pitcher available after Cliff Lee.
  • Kevin Correia (10-10, 5.40), who I previously profiled as a potential 2011 Pirate, declined the Padres' offer of arbitration and is officially a free agent.
  • The Pirates supposedly are interested in Lance Berkman (.248/.368/.413), as reported by Berkman himself. The first baseman had the worst season of his career last year but still got on base at a good rate. He is a decent candidate for a comeback season and would be an upgrade over Garrett Jones, but I would rather see the Pirates sign either Carlos Pena or Derrek Lee - both of whom are far superior to Berkman in the field.
  • Former Pirates closer Octavio Dotel, who saved 21 games for Pittsburgh last year, declined the Dodgers' offer of arbitration and is now a free agent. If he were to resign here that would negate the need for a new blog banner for 2011.
Pirates Inquire Into Bartlett
Two days after I profiled Tampa Bay's Jason Bartlett as a possible trade candidate to upgrade the shortstop position, Ken Rosenthal reports that the Pirates are among the teams expressing interest in Bartlett. Tampa Bay wants bullpen help, although some money or prospects would have to be coming this way if the Pirates were to give up their most valuable bullpen piece, Joel Hanrahan, in such a deal. Let's hope some of these rumors are real and this isn't another Vazquez/Monroe/Hinske offseason.

Blog Updates
I linked the 2011 Needs series and an index to all the Great Pirates in History on the left sidebar. Also all players mentioned in the posts will now be linked to their statistics page on Baseball Reference. This should make it easier to get more information on the players, as well as make for a better narrative since I won't have to provide as many statistics if they are easily available.

The 2011 Right Field Job

Unlike the other offensive positions I highlighted as areas for improvement - catcher and shortstop - the Pirates actually got decent production out of their right fielders in 2010. As in below average, but not laughable. Pirates right fielders combined to hit .262/.330/.428 with 20 home runs, 78 RBI, and 70 runs scored. This is not too far off from the average MLB team which got production of .270/.342/.442, 84 runs, 21 home runs, and 85 RBI.

Unfortunataely, those statistics are misleadingly high and won't be repeated if some combination of the same guys return in 2011. Garrett Jones and Lastings Milledge each compiled an OPS over 100 points higher while playing right field than overall, a trend that won't continue. Another good sign that the Pirates don't have a starting right fielder: they used six different men for at least 15 starts at the position. Jones (46 starts) and Milledge (41) led the way; also getting significant playing time were Ryan Church (23), Delwyn Young (16), Ryan Doumit (17), and John Bowker (15). Baseball Reference reckons that all but Bowker played below average defense, which seems right to my eye.Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata will likely combine for around 25 home runs next year in left field and center field, which is fine, but it also means the Pirates need a power bat in right field.


Garrett Jones (.247/.306/.414) will be back in 2011. I think he can be an asset to the team as a backup at first base, left field, right field, and de facto at center field since he could play left with Tabata moving over. It's a long and injury-filled season and a guy in that role usually comes to bat 250 to 350 times, which is fine for Jones. But as a below average hitter and fielder for every position he plays, he just shouldn't be a 654 plate appearance core starter as he was in 2010. He's the type of component player that most playoff teams have - on their bench.

Lastings Milledge (.277/.332/.380) is one of the most maddening players I have ever seen. He is an above average contact hitter but he has mediocre on base skills because he can't or won't work the count. He has excellent speed - I doubt McCutchen would beat him by much in a 100 yard dash if at all - but is an awful baserunner because he constantly gets thrown out on ill-advised attempts to advance to third base. He consistently takes the wrong routes to balls in the outfield, resulting in poor range even though he must be one of the fastest corner outfielders in the league. And he has decent arm strength but a slow release, giving him a below average arm. Lastings Milledge is like preparing a meal of USDA Prime Porterhouse, Potatoes Au Gratin, and Asparagus with Hollandaise Sauce, and pairing it with a 60 dollar bottle of Robert Mondavi Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon, and he is like that meal because that meal should not be a starting outfielder in 2011.

John Bowker (.232/.312/.391) is a great AAA hitter but in 590 MLB plate appearances has never done anything to suggest he should be anything more than a fifth outfielder in the major leagues. With Tabata's ability to play center field, the Pirates can get by with two reserve outfielders who can only play left and right; furthermore, he won't get an arbitration raise like Milledge and he at least looks on the field like a guy who has played baseball before. I would go with Jones as a fourth outfielder/first base backup and Bowker as the fifth outfielder, with Milledge traded or non-tendered.

Ryan Doumit (.251/.331/.406) never is, never was, never will be, and never again should be a right fielder.


You always knew Ryan Church (.182/.240/.312) would be fine when he was off the Pirates, and you couldn't wait for that day. Sure enough, he hit .265/.345/.490 in Arizona. By the way, I'm done with signing free agents for the Pirates' bench. Use your free agent money for starting players.

Delwyn Young (.236/.286/.414) elected free agency after being removed from the 40-man roster. Young was the Pirates' best pinch hitter for two years, but he also is a mediocre hitter with no secondary skills. He'll catch on somewhere as a 25th man.


There are not many right fielders available via free agency. Jayson Werth isn't signing with Pittsburgh. Lance Berkman is being marketed as a first baseman/corner outfielder but there is a reason he hasn't played the outfield since 2007. However, there are several guys who would be viable starting outfielders and will sign reasonable deals:

Magglio Ordonez will be 37 and should be a DH. That being said, an outfield of Tabata-McCutchen-anybody is still pretty good defensively. As usual, there are too many DH-types available, which will force some of them to take a deal with a National League club. Ordonez would immediately become the Pirates' best on base guy and would also give the Pirates a true cleanup hitter. In 2009-10 he had the best couple of injury-plagued off years this side of Manny Ramirez as he hit .307/.377/.447. I know the Pirates prefer to sign a lefthanded power bat, but a bat is a bat. Age catches up with everyone, but I would be in favor of giving Magglio a one or two-year deal.

Yes, these recommendations may seem like a 2003 blog, but Andruw Jones hit .230/.341/.486 in 2010 with a home run every 14.6 at bats. The Pirates' best power threat, Pedro Alvarez, only hit one every 24 at bats. Jones would also slot immediately into the cleanup spot. He seems like he's been around forever but is only 33 and still plays good defense. The Pirates could do a lot worse, as in, using any right fielder currently on the roster.

Left fielders Pat Burrell (.252/.348/.469), Johnny Damon (.271/.355/.401), Hideki Matsui (.274/.361/.459), and, yes, Manny Ramirez (.298/.409/.460) are all still pretty good hitters and all will sign reasonable contracts - even Ramirez. They're all varying degrees of awful in the field, but the NL's worst offense certainly needs the upgrade. Jose Tabata could slide over to right to accommodate any of them.

It's not ideal to change Tabata's position right now, but for a team that last year (a) tried to use a career minor league catcher as an everyday first baseman, (b) repeatedly used a slow catcher with bad knees as a right fielder, (c) converted a catcher-turned-third baseman into a starting second baseman during his rookie season, (d) started both a poor-hitting backup shortstop and a poor-hitting backup third baseman at first base, and (e) gave away authentic MLB jerseys to Hayden Penn and Dana Eveland, it's not a stretch.

November 29, 2010

Great Pirates in History: Manny Sanguillen

Manny Sanguillen was a great contact hitter, a great bad ball hitter, and a Gold Glove catcher if not for Johnny Bench. He was a two-time World Champion who played on all six of the Pirates' 1970s playoff teams.

Manny was signed out of Colon, Panama (also the hometown of Rod Carew and Rennie Stennett) in 1965. By 1967 he was hitting poorly at AAA Columbus but nevertheless got a shot to play in the summer when Pirates starter Jerry May was injured. He hit .271 over the final two months of the season, better than his .258 AAA average, and threw out 8 of 14 base stealers. He returned to Columbus for all of 1968, but the writing was on the wall as May hit only .213 for the Pirates while Sanguillen hit .316 in AAA.

Sanguillen returned to the majors the next year for good as the club that would contend throughout the next decade took shape. He had an excellent first year, starting 107 games and hitting .303. He was the fastest catcher in the league and had six triples and eight stealsa that year. Behing the plate, he again shut down the opposing running game, throwing out 44% of baserunners.

The 1970s Dynasty
The next year, Manny improved his hitting to a .325 average and slugged .444. He threw out 43% of baserunners and caught what was now the third best pitching staff in the league. He finished 11th in the MVP balloting as the Pirates won 89 games and returned to the playoffs for the first time in ten years. Pittsburgh was swept out of the playoffs by the Reds, but the league was on notice.

We don't see many players like this today - the closest I've seen was Coco Crisp's Indians days - but by all accounts the Pirates' catcher played the game with unbridled joy. One wonders if the reason he swung at balls well outside the strike zone was the sheer love of hitting. Even today he is rarely pictured without a smile.

Sanguillen returned with another fine year for the immensely talented 1971 Bucs. Batting seventh in the lineup, he hit .319 and drove in 81 runs. He had his best throwing year, nailing 51% of base stealers (Bench only threw out 42%). He was rewarded with an All-Star appearance and an eighth place finish in the MVP voting. But the best reward, of course, was the seven game World Series victory in which Sanguillen hit .379 and stole two bases as the fleet footed Orioles tried to steal on him only once.

He continued to be a model of consistency for the 1972-75 Pirates, hitting no worse than .282 each year, always with around 65 runs scored and RBI and stellar defense.During those years Sanguillen was present for the worst day in Pirates history, New Year's Eve 1972. His close friend Roberto Clemente was aboard a DC-7 that took off that night to fly relief supplies to earthquake victims in San Juan. The plane exploded and plunged into the ocean less than two minutes after takeoff. Clemente was 38 years old.

"It was almost 10 or 11 when we got the news. We were having a party to count down the New Year in my restaurant and a friend called and said to turn on the radio. He said Roberto's plane had crashed," recalled Clemente friend Rudy Hernandez.

"Manny Sanguillen, the Pirates catcher, and (Clemente) were very close. Manny was in my joint that night. When he heard the news he and a couple of guys jumped in their car and raced out there. They got a small boat and Manny started diving in the water to see if he could find something. There are sharks out there, man. I mean real, man-eating sharks and he didn't care."

The catcher didn't give up the search. He was the only Pirate to miss Clemente's memorial service. He was in a boat helping the diving teams, looking for the body of his friend.

The year following the tragedy was the only time the Pirates didn't win the division from 1970-75. Sanguillen's tenth inning, walk off single clinched the National League East on the last day of the 1974 season. Just an inning earlier, he had scored the winning run to tie the game. Statistically his best season was 1975, when he hit .328, slugged .451 and got on base at a .391 clip - all career highs.

A Shocking Trade
In 1976 however, Sanguillen was injured twice and started only 104 games. He always hit seven or eight home runs but that year had only two. A young catcher named Ed Ott hit .308 in a September cup of coffee. Manager Danny Murtaugh retired after the season, and A's owner Charlie Finley was in a buying mood. So in one of the strangest trades ever, the Pirates shipped their starting catcher to Oakland for $100,000 and manager Chuck Tanner.

To that point, Sanguillen was a .304 hitting catcher who also happened to play some of the best defense in the league. That the Pirates' savvy general manager Joe Brown would give him up shows how great a manager Tanner was. Finley's thoughts: "Managers are a dime a dozen."

The trade makes less sense from the A's perspective. Sanguillen's salary was $145,000 in 1977, so he ended up costing the A's a quarter of a million dollars. Yet the A's spent the entire '77 season selling off their veterans, fielded a lineup of mostly rookies and and finished 63-98. Did Finley really need a playoff tough, veteran catcher for that group?

Apparently he didn't think so, for in the ensuing offseason Sanguillen was shipped back to Pittsburgh for a few spare parts. Sanguillen was no longer healthy enough to catch on a regular basis. Recast as a platoon first baseman, he had his worst year yet hitting only .264.

Champion Again
By 1979, Sanguillen was an occasional pinch hitter who barely played in the field. He got one of the season's bigger hits late in September, when he beat the Phillies with a two out, two-run triple in the ninth inning. It was the last triple of the old catcher's career.

Sanguillen was on the playoff roster but didn't bat at all in the NLCS. But of course, he got one final big hit for the Pirates. It came in Game 2 of the 1979 World Series, tied 2-2 in the top of the ninth inning with the Pirates already down 1-0 in games. Don Stanhouse was pitching for the Orioles and there were two outs with men on first and second. In one of the biggest at bats of the Series, Sanguillen delivered a game winning single to right field. The Pirates lost three of the first four games of that Series, so they might have been swept without Sanguillen's hit.

After another year of pinch hitting in 1980, Sanguillen's career was over. But it was a remarkable one. Over 12 years in Pittsburgh, eight as a starter, he hit .299 with 1343 hits. He made three All-Star teams, got votes in the MVP race four times, and won six division titles and two championships. If not for Bench he would have certainly won three Gold Gloves (1970-72) and potentially a few others.

Manny Sanguillen was not a perfect player. He never walked, he grounded into too many double plays, and he never could use his speed to be an effective base stealer. His career on base percentage was only 30 points higher than his batting average. But he was an outstanding starting catcher for the greatest Pirates dynasty ever and a World Champion, and for that he is truly a Great Pirate in History.

November 27, 2010

The 2011 Shortstop Job

The Pirates got below average production from all but two offensive positions in 2010, but shortstop was one of the most glaring weaknesses. Pirates shortstops compiled a whopping 45 runs scored and 45 RBI as they hit .254/.294/.366 overall. Ronny Cedeno (132 starts) was the main culprit, but Bobby Crosby (22) and Argenis Diaz (8) were no better.

John Russell said in September that Ronny Cedeno would return as starting shortstop in 2011. Little did Russell know that he would not return as starting manager in 2011. It's hard to imagine that the Pirates can't do better from the shortstop spot, so let's look at the options.

No matter how many times FSN replayed his routine fielding plays in slow motion, Ronny Cedeno (.256/.293/.382) had a terrible year in 2010. Is there a reason for a guy who generates 8 home runs all season to swing at every pitch, to the tune of 23 walks versus 106 strikeouts? Both Fangraphs and Baseball Reference had Cedeno with negative defensive value. Yet 2010 was actually Cedeno's career year. He made $1.125 million and is due an arbitration raise. If the Pirates are serious about fielding a winning team, they'll non-tender Cedeno, let him leave in free agency and do something else.

Argenis Diaz (.242/.306/.273) already fields at a major league level but hits like, well, Ronny Cedeno. He'll only be 24 in 2011 and needs to play every day at Indianapolis to develop his hitting skills. If that doesn't happen, he'll end up learning to play second and third base in order to stick in the majors as a utility infielder.

If Cedeno was bad, Bobby Crosby (.224/.301/.295) was worse. He briefly "won" the shortstop job from Cedeno, then made eight errors in only 22 games at shortstop and was traded to Arizona despite his amazing ability to play poor defense at every infield position. The Diamondbacks released him after nine games. He'll probably get a minor league contract from somebody.

There's no chance of Derek Jeter joining the Pirates. Free agents available are aging guys like Miguel Tejada, Edgar Renteria and Orlando Cabrera. Formerly outstanding shortstops, these guys have declined so much that for various reasons they really shouldn't even be starters in 2011. There's only one legitimate option left on the free agent market.

Juan Uribe (.248/.310/.440) will likely look for a multiyear deal entering his age 31 season. Uribe is an above average fielder at second base, third base, and shortstop. Offensively, he doesn't get on base enough but has four seasons of over 20 home runs. And his 45 walks in 2010, while low, were twice Cedeno's total. At something like $3-3.5 million a year, Uribe seems like a worthwhile investment considering Ronny Cedeno will likely get nearly $2 million if he's allowed to arbitration.

With the free agent market pretty barren, a trade might be a better option. Two AL East teams want to make room for prospects and are making pretty good, established starters available. Both will be free agents after 2011 and might be available for a minimal return due to their salaries.

Marco Scutaro (.275/.333/.388) has scored 100 and 92 runs over the last two seasons while playing an excellent shortstop. While 2009 looks like a career year for Scutaro, he;s been a solid hitter every year since 2006. He would certainly be one of the better #7 or #8 hitters in the National league, and isn't a joke at the leadoff spot either. He's due to make $5 million in 2011, which is money the Red Sox want off the books when Jed Lowrie can play every day for $450,000.

Slowed by injuries, Jason Bartlett (.254/.324/.350) had an off year in 2010. He still has a career .345 OBP, is an excellent baserunner and is only a year removed from his career year when he hit .320/.389/.490. Bartlett will only be 31 and is not as good as Scutaro or Uribe defensively, but would still be an upgrade over Ronny Cedeno. He's arbitration eligible and will get a raise from his 2010 salary of $4 million.

November 20, 2010

Duke, LaRoche, Young Released

The Pirates cut ties with one of their longest tenured players yesterday, as they designated lefthanded starter Zach Duke for assignment. Bench players Delwyn Young and Andy LaRoche were also designated, and all three will likely become free agents.

Starting in 2002, Duke went 42-16 with a 2.38 ERA in four minor league seasons to establish himself as a top prospect. He was called up in July '05 and went 8-2, 1.81 that year, finishing fifth in Rookie of the Year voting. The following year, Duke was a league average pitcher as he went 10-15, 4.47, throwing 215 innings. That was a solid age 23 season, but it was also one he would never improve on. He looked to have put things together in 2009, when he had a 3.38 ERA and 10 wins in late August, but he imploded down the stretch that year and then was hit hard in almost every start in 2010. Overall he went 45-70, 4.54, giving up nearly 11 hits per nine innings over his six years in Pittsburgh.

I really enjoyed watching Zach Duke on nights when he was on. There were always men on base, and opposing hitters would struggle mightily to make solid contact off his seemingly hittable stuff. First-and-third, one out rallies would end in nothing, and frustrated hitters would come back hacking inning after inning, only to end the night having scored only two runs although only two batters struck out. And he could be unhittable too: Duke's masterpiece four hit shutout at the '09 home opener remains one of the two or three best pitched games I've seen in person.

In 2011, his final year of arbitration, Zach Duke would have made $5 million. The Pirates can bring in a better pitcher for the same amount. But for a 20th round pick to even make 159 starts by age 27, including two Opening Day starts, is not bad at all. I'm glad he won his final home start here in Pittsburgh. Like John Russell, Duke had to go but I wish him the best. Someone will sign him as a fifth starter in 2011.

Delwyn Young's .258/.317/.393 career line actually isn't bad for a bench bat who can play infield and outfield positions. Of course, he couldn't play any of those positions well. He's too good for AAA but has no place on a contending MLB team. Someone will give him a bench job in 2011.

Andy LaRoche was a credible third baseman in 2009; not so much in 2008 and 2010. He now has a career .224/.304/.338 batting line, and also had negative defensive value this season. For a guy who can only play one position, that spells a minor league job in 2011.

November 18, 2010

Odds and Ends: de la Rosa, Oliver

Other than the ability to buy Pumpkin Spice Cappucino at gas stations, there's pretty much nothing to recommend about November. The baseball news is mostly of the "unwarranted speculation" variety. Here is the rest of this week's Pirates news:

Pirates Pursuing De La Rosa
The Pirates are apparently one of three front runners to sign starting pitcher Jorge de la Rosa although at least seven teams are trying to sign the righthander. Others in contention are the Orioles and Nationals. MLB Trade Rumors listed de la Rosa as the #12 free agent available this offseason, and the #3 starting pitcher (#2 now that Hiroki Kuroda has resigned with the Dodgers).

de la Rosa is a power pitcher who went 34-24, 4.49 for Colorado over the past three years and averaged a strikeout an inning. Those are excellent K numbers for a starting pitcher, and the ERA is very good for Coors Field as well. He dials it up with a 93-94 mph fastball bust his out pitches are a slider and changeup which induced a 52% ground ball ratio last year.

If the finalists truly are Pittsburgh, Baltimore and Washington, we might actually have the advantage. Given the Nationals' awful infield defense, I can't imagine a free agent ground ball pitcher signing with Washington unless the price really was right. And I can't imagine de la Rosa would be better off in the AL East than in the NL Central. Nevertheless, enough teams need pitching that this falls under the "I'll believe it when I see it" category.

Al Oliver A HOF Finalist
Former Pirates outfielder/first baseman Al Oliver was announced as one of 12 Hall of Fame candidates for the upcoming Veterans Committee vote. Results will be released in a few weeks.

Oliver was one of the top contact hitters in baseball for most of his career, including nine consecutive .300 hitting seasons from 1976-84. He started on five first place Pirates teams including the 1971 World Champions, and ended his career with 2743 hits and a .303 batting average along with 529 doubles, 77 triples and 219 home runs - excellent numbers for a player who played in a pitching/defense dominated era. 1490 of those hits were in a Pirates uniform before he was traded in the Bert Blyleven deal.

Vada Pinson is the only eligible player with more hits than Oliver who has not been inducted. The problem with Oliver's candidacy is that every other aspect of his game hurts him: he wasn't a good fielder (despite starting in center field here for six years), he hardly walked at all, he grounded into a lot of double plays, and he didn't steal many bases and got caught almost as much as he was successful. Only one of his skills was Hall of Fame caliber, which isn't enough.

Kratz Gone
Catcher Erik Kratz signed with the Phillies, where he'll catch at AAA Lehigh Valley and provide depth in case a major league catcher gets injured. Kratz hit .274/.380/.496 for Indianapolis last year. He also came up to Pittsburgh for a while during one of the several Ryan Doumit injuries. Behind the plate he looked like Johnny Bench in comparison to Doumit, and backed it up by throwing out four of seven base stealers. The Pirates will need to look for another strong AAA catcher given that both Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit are injury-prone.

No Coaching News Yet
Clint Hurdle did not insist on the right to choose his entire coaching staff, and the Pirates did not give it. This means that it's up in the air whether Tony Beasley will be back as third base coach. I don't see why he would be though. How many outs were made between second and third last year? That is Beasley's responsibility. It's true that he was coaching third base during the "two men on third" debacle which cost the Pirates a game. Things like that can't happen on the 2011 WFC team. There is no shortage of good baseball men who can coach third base.

November 14, 2010

Clint Hurdle Hired

The Pirates got their man today, hiring Clint Hurdle to be their new manager. The news will be officially announced at a press conference tomorrow. He had been offered a second interview for the Mets job but apparently preferred the bird in hand.

This is great news for Pirates fans. Hurdle is well known as a great teacher of young hitters, and he should be great for the Walker/McCutchen/Tabata/Alvarez group. Hurdle's approach stresses plate discipline, something all those hitters but McCutchen need to improve. For example, the 2009 Rangers finished 12th in the American League in walks and first in strikeouts. Hurdle took over as hitting coach in 2010 and the Rangers finished eighth in walks and 11th in strikeouts. The result was adding 18 more points of on base percentage and an improvement from seventh to fourth in runs scored.

The Pirates offense needs to get much better at walking as well. The Pirates drew only 453 walks in 2010, an unacceptably low number that ranked 15th in the National League. McCutchen was the only player who batted more than 40 times with an on base percentage above .350. But the regular players were all under 30, and all are capable of walking more. For example, Alvarez is always going to strike out a lot, but that would be fine if he's walking a lot too. Ronny Cedeno struck out 106 times and walked 23 times. Does his eight home run power justify hacking at every pitch? It is much easier for a hitter to improve his walk rate than to improve his power or contact. Clint Hurdle can help these hitters to do that. By all accounts he is a tremendously hard worker who will work with each hitter individually to get the most out of their talents.

Clint Hurdle also has experience in making the World Series with a team that isn't very good. That's going to be really key in Pittsburgh too. Check out the lineup the Rockies fielded in Game 1 of the 2007 World Series:

Wily Taveras cf
Kazuo Matsui 2b
Matt Holliday lf
Todd Helton 1b
Garrett Atkins 3b
Brad Hawpe rf
Troy Tulowitzki ss
Yorvit Torrealba c
Ryan Spilborghs dh
Jeff Francis p

Now obviously there are three stars in Holliday, Helton and Tulowitzki, but who are the rest of these guys? Atkins and Hawpe could only hit when Clint Hurdle was managing them, and the rest could never hit. Jeff Francis is your ace pitcher for a pennant winning team? Hurdle had to be doing something right to win 21 of 22 games and reach the World Series with this crew.

Obviously, John Russell was not the reason the Pirates have been a bad team recently. Nevertheless I am quite happy to have Clint Hurdle on board. It's a step forward for the entire Pirates organization.

November 10, 2010

The 2011 First Base Job

The Pirates had a bad lineup in 2010, and the first base position was the biggest reason. Pirates first basemen hit an abysmal .227/.277/.370 on the year. Garrett Jones (106 starts) and Jeff Clement (33) were the primary culprits, and to make matters worse neither man fielded well either. Another sign things were bad - Steven Pearce, Bobby Crosby, John Bowker, Ryan Doumit and Andy LaRoche all saw time at the position.

I advocated during the season that Jones should play all year to see what he's capable of. It turns out he's capable of a reserve 1B/LF/RF role. That's fine, but it means the Pirates need to bring in a new starting first baseman. Like I said with pitching, there's no trade bait worth trading so that means signing a free agent.

Remember Adam LaRoche? The perennial .270 hitting, 85 RBI first baseman who so many fans hated? That kind of production would sure seem nice in comparison. It's also the minimum a major league team can get by with.

Garrett Jones (247/.306/.414) simply did not hit enough to start at first base next year. I suspect the Pirates will put him in a platoon role, but he also can't field at first base. Jones hit .215/.266/.392 in the second half - those are bad enough numbers to lose the job.

Steven Pearce (.295/.395/.414) hit well and fielded passably for a few weeks before undergoing season-ending surgery. Yet he never hit well in MLB before and, of course, is coming off surgery. A Pearce/Jones platoon would be the most bullshit possible scenario for 2010.

Jeff Clement (.201/.237/.368) was outrighted to Indianapolis and can elect free agency. His performance was downright terrible and I'd be shocked to see him in a Pirates uniform again. Expecting Clement to both learn a new position and learn to hit breaking balls, just by placing him on the field and in the lineup, was a pretty dumb decision.

Adam LaRoche is a free agent and remains a good option, but I'd be shocked to see him come back. Paul Konerko, Aubrey Huff, and Adam Dunn will be out of the Pirates' price range. Here are the two guys who I would look to sign:

Carlos Pena (.196/.325/.407) hits free agency at the worst possible time as he embarassingly hit below .200 over a full season. He's a Scott Boras client, and Boras typically seeks one-year deals for guys coming off career-worst years to rebuild their value. Remember, Pena is only one year removed from a season in which he led the American League in home runs despite missing a month of the season. He's a solid defensive first baseman with 144 home runs in the past four years. I'm guessing he signs a one-year deal worth around $7.5 million.

Derrek Lee (.260/.347/.428) played poorly for the Cubs but rebounded to hit very well down the stretch for the Braves, helping them to the NL wild card. 2010 was also Lee's career worst year, and I think it's a better bargain to expect a guy to rebound from his career worst year than repeat his career year (Konerko, Huff). He's a former Gold Glover and entering his age 35 season, still is not a liability in the field. There's no reason to think he can't score and drive in 90 runs in 2011 while playing average defense. I think he'll settle for a one-year deal worth around $6 million.

Hurdle interviews with Mets

Rangers hitting coach Clint Hurdle will talk with the Mets today about their open managerial job. I expect that the Pirates job is Hurdle's if he wants it. However, if Hurdle gets offered the Mets job he almost certainly will decline the Pirates job. Considering there are two finalists, and using my powers of reasoning, that would leave Jeff Banister as the Pirates manager.

I'm on record as supporting Hurdle as the choice to be the new Pirates manager. He took the 2007 Rockies to the World Series with no starting pitching. That's a task not unlike what I would hope he could accomplish with the 2011 Pirates, although it's possible the '07 Rockies had more Heltons and Hollidays on their side.

Obviously the Mets job would be more attractive, given the difference between a $130 million payroll and a $40 million payroll. However, it's far from a foregone conclusion that Hurdle would get the Mets job. They've interviewed at least four internal and four external candidates. I'll keep you posted.

November 9, 2010

Great Pirates in History: Jay Bell

Jay Bell was a quintessential shortstop of his era: durable, steady in the field, able to advance runners and bunt out of the #2 hole, and possessing doubles power, speed and on base ability. The Bonilla-Bonds-Van Slyke outfield is well remembered, but Bell was a no less essential player to the 1990-92 division champions.

Early Days
The Twins drafted Bell with the eighth overall pick in 1984 as a high school shortstop out of Florida. He was hitting well in A ball the next year when Minnesota shipped him to Cleveland in a package for another Great Pirate in History, Bert Blyleven. In parts of three seasons with the Tribe, Bell hit only .223/.288/.323 and struggled on defense. Cleveland gave up on their 22-year-old, former top 10 pick, shipping him to the Pirates for fellow poor hitting infielders, Felix Fermin and Denny Gonzalez.

Bell was the Opening Day shortstop in '89 but after a brutal 1-for-20 start, the Pirates quickly sent him back to AAA Buffalo for more seasoning.He hit well in the minors, as he always had, and was starting again in the big leagues by late July. He hit well enough this time to end up in the #2 spot in the lineup - a spot he wouldn't relinquish for seven years. Jim Leyland's group was 18 games below .500 when Bell became a starter but finished 35-31 with him in the lineup. The iconic early '90s lineup had finally come together.

Glory Years
The 1990-91 Pirates went with Bell batting second in front of Van Slyke, Bonilla and Bonds, Bell's double play partner Jose Lind hitting eighth, and a bevy of platoons around them. What had been a mediocre lineup became the league's best.

In 1990, Bell led all NL shortstops with 93 runs and would have scored 100, had he not also broken the an 84-year-old record with 39 sacrifice bunts, still the best in franchise history. He walked 65 times and while he never had great range in the field, used positioning and good double play skills to play an above average shortstop. The following year, he scored 96 more times and again led the league with 30 sacrifice bunts. This time he added power, with 16 home runs among his 56 extra base hits. Playing even better defense now, Bell finished 12th in the '91 MVP voting.

He declined a bit at the plate in '92 but still scored 87 runs. During those seasons, unlike a certain star left fielder, Bell turned things on during the playoffs, hitting .282/.356/.462. Bell was the Pirates' player representative and one of their clubhouse leaders throughout that stretch.

The Pirates inexplicably broke up their first place club for 1993. Bell, the 11th highest paid player on the 1992 team, was now the second highest paid player on the team at $3 million. It was a sad season for the Pirates but a great one for Bell, who had a career year at the plate and in the infield. Playing in 154 games, Bell was on base constantly with 187 hits and another 77 walks. He finished with a .310/.392/.437 batting line and scored 102 runs despite having no power hitters behind him in the lineup. That earned him a Silver Slugger award. He also led the league in putouts, assists, and fielding percentage, and became the first NL shortstop not named Ozzie Smith to win a Gold Glove in 14 years.

Three and Out
In 1994, the Pirates fielded a sorry offense that finished last in the league in runs. Nevertheless, Bell was on a 97 run pace when the strike came and hit a remarkable 35 doubles in only 110 games. Hitting .276/.353/.441, he turned in his second best offensive season in Pittsburgh.

The '95 Pirates slumped to 58-86 as Bell, Orlando Merced and Jeff King were now the only links to the glory years which ended only three seasons before. Bell slumped to .262/.336/.404. In 1996, playing for another poor team, he .250/.323/.391. The already penny-pinching Pirates overlooked his defensive value and concluded that Jay Bell could no longer be a Pirate, not at a salary that had now risen to $5 million a year.

Pittsburgh promptly shipped the right side of their infield - Bell and Jeff King - to the Royals. King was a #3 hitter who had just hit 30 home runs and driven in 111 runs in 1996. Bell was a Gold Glove shortstop who over the last seven years had a .341 on base percentage and averaged 31 doubles and 84 runs scored a season, even though two of those seasons were strike shortened.For both players the Pirates got Joe Randa - an average player who they thought enough of to lose in the expansion draft a year later - and three pitchers who combined to win three MLB games over the rest of their careers.

"Yet another reason the Pirates had a lot of fans," a fan wrote to the Post-Gazette. "Trading Jay Bell and Keff King is the ultimate slap in the face to the fans," wrote another.

The 1997 Pirates famously stayed in the pennant race until the season's final weekend despite not having any star players. Yet it didn't need to be like that. Now playing in Kansas City, King had 84 runs scored, 28 home runs, 112 RBI, 89 walks and 16 steals. Bell rebounded with 89 runs scored, 21 home runs, 92 RBI, 71 walks and 10 steals. Pittsburgh finished five games out of first playing Joe Randa, Kevin Polcovich, Dale Sveum and Kevin Elster at Bell and King's vacated positions. Pirates fandom might not be that different right now if this trade hadn't gone down. But there would be quite a few more fans who could remember playoff baseball, and at least we wouldn't be talking about a record number of losing seasons.

Jay Bell had several more good years in Arizona, culminating in a World Series ring in 2001. He was the heart and soul of the only good Pirates teams many of us can remember, and for that he is a Great Pirate in History.

November 3, 2010

Ledezma Re-Signed; Manager Search Down To Two

Hurdle, Banister are the finalists for manager
Former Rockies manager Clint Hurdle, recently profiled on this very site, will be interviewed tomorrow but is already one of two finalists for the Pirates job. Expect the Pirates to sign him before Sunday, which is the first day negotiations with free agents can begin. It would be a big disadvantage to not have a leader in place for free agent negotiations.

The other finalist is Jeff Banister, who was most recently the Pirates bench coach. Jeff had an astounding 1.000 career batting average for the Pirates, going 1-for-1 for the 1991 squad. But he hasn't managed since 1998 and even then it was at the AA level. It's hard for me to believe he has a great chance at the job - if the Pirates wanted him to manage the team they could have given him the job two weeks ago after he interviewed for it.

What would it take to not be re-signed?
The Pirates got off to an inauspicious start to this offseason by re-signing reliever Wil Ledezma. No details were released, but let's hope this contract is of the minor league variety.

Ledezma went 0-3 with a 6.86 ERA in 27 games for the Pirates. He was brought up to replace Javier Lopez as the lefty specialist out of the bullpen, but got absolutely torched by opposing lefties who put up a batting line of .367/.424/.533. He's put up a 5.26 career ERA, and has a career WHIP identical to last year's 1.58.

Ledezma is a good minor league pitcher, but there's no reason to think at age 29 that he's talented enough to be on a big league staff. No details were released, but let's hope this one was a minor league contract.

Four Cuts Made
Outfielder Brandon Moss and pitchers Sean Gallagher, Steven Jackson and Justin Thomas were all outrighted to AAA. They can all become minor league free agents. Maybe the Pirates will resign one or two of these guys, but none have shown any indication of being major league ballplayers. The roster is down to 38 men after these moves, meaning the Pirates weren't unbelievably anxious to hang on to any of them. Brandon Moss, for one, proved once again in September that he can't hit major league pitching. All four will get AAA contracts somewhere.

Dotel Becomes A Free Agent
Former Pirate closer Octavio Dotel, still featured in the blog's title bar to provide a link to the glory days of last July, is a free agent. The Rockies declined his option as expected.

Dotel pitched well here, going 2-2 with a 4.28 ERA and 21 saves while racking up strikeouts. Overall on the season he appeared in 68 games, gave up only 52 hits in 64 innings, K'd 75 batters and walked 32. Those are basically the same numbers he's always put up, and I would be open to bringing him back in 2011.

November 2, 2010

Is Clint Hurdle The Pirates Guy?

The Pirates, conspicuously silent for two weeks, plan to interview Clint Hurdle for their open manager job.

Hurdle worked as the Texas Rangers hitting coach this year, but is more familiar from his eight years managing the Rockies. He had a losing record in seven of those years and compiled an overall record of 534-625. But in the one winning year, 2007, the Rockies advanced to the World Series by winning seven straight games in the postseason.

He must have been doing something right because the Rockies' four top starters that year were Jeff Francis, Aaron Cook, Josh Fogg, and Jason Hirsh. Reaching the playoffs, let alone the World Series, with that kind of rotation requires (a) some knowledge of how to manage a pitching staff, and (b) some knowledge of who Jason Hirsh even is.

Other than an irrational love of the intentional walk, Hurdle is a pretty sound tactician. He also is known for working well with young hitters - players including Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Holliday developed on his watch. There are also a few guys - Garrett Atkins is one - who all of a sudden couldn't hit once Hurdle was gone.

Obviously it seems like the Pirates are very interested in Hurdle, or they wouldn't have waited weeks for the Rangers to be eliminated in order to talk to him. I'll have an update if any other news comes out.