February 28, 2011

2011 Position Preview: Third Base

I have rarely felt more excitement at PNC Park than the atmosphere for Pedro Alvarez's first game. Tabata and Walker are nice players, but Pedro Alvarez is the potential saviour - a bat with 40 home run potential. Alvarez will obviously be your everyday third baseman and cleanup hitter in 2011.

The last major prospect to be called up from Indianapolis last year, Pedro started 94 of 98 games after his recall. Initially, he hit poorly but fielded well. But he soon became the power-hitting, iron-gloved Pedro that we expected.

2010: 95 games, .256/.326/.461, 42 Runs, 16 HR, 64 RBI, 0 SB

Typical of a young lefthanded hitter, at age 23 Alvarez struggled against lefthanded pitching (.228/.302/.342). But his 16 home runs came in bunches that remind me of another player: Ryan Howard. The breakdown was seven home runs in 14 games from July 3-21, three in four games from Aug. 4-7, a stray homer Sept. 5, and five in 10 days from Sept. 22-Oct. 1. Once Alvarez learns to avoid extended slumps, he'll be a legitimate cleanup hitter on a championship team - that championship team being the 2011 Pirates.

The strikeout issues will always be there of course. I'm actually fine with strikeouts from a player who walks a lot, but last year Alvarez struck out 119 times and drew only 37 walks. Counting AAA he had 187 strikeouts. But counting AAA he also had 29 home runs and 117 RBI at age 23. That's an exciting young power hitter and one who already is looking like a great pick at #2 overall in 2008.

In 2011, I'm not shy about predicting a big season for Alvarez. Something like .260/.340/.490, 75 runs, 30 home runs, 100 RBI and a couple of steals. With the decreased offensive levels around baseball, that would make Alvarez one of the ten best power hitters in the National League.

February 27, 2011

2011 Position Preview: Second Base

Neil Walker was the Pirates' most pleasant surprise of 2010. Written off as a failed prospect, Walker had never really proven he could hit even AAA pitching. Last year he not only hit big league pitching but, just as impressively, learned second base at the major league level after Akinori Iwamura proved to be a bust.

Last year, Walker played in all 110 Pirates games he was available for, starting 104. He'll play every day again, which is a good thing if he can repeat or improve upon his 2010 performance, which earned him fifth place in Rookie of the Year voting.

2010: 110 Games, .296/.349/.462, 57 Runs, 12 HR, 66 RBI, 2 SB

This will be a telling year for Neil Walker as we see whether 2010 was a breakout season or simply a career year. He's 25 so of course there's room for improvement, but I think most fans would be happy with the same performance again at the plate. Not many teams have a second baseman who can hit 44 extra base hits in 110 games.

This year Walker should improve on his defense, which was respectable but below average in his first full season at second base. I also would like to see him run more on the bases - he has good speed and stole 10 bases through late May at Indianapolis, then swiped only two for the Pirates. On offense I'd be happy with a bit more plate discipline even with a slight falloff in extra base hits.

In 2011 I am looking for Walker to prove 2010 wasn't a fluke and cement his status as an above average everyday middle infielder. I'm also anticipating an injury of two weeks to a month, so I'd be happy with .280/.345/.440, 75 Runs, 14 HR, 70 RBI, and 7 steals.

February 26, 2011

2011 Position Preview: Left Field

After he was called up from Indianapolis in June, Jose Tabata started 102 of the 104 remaining games for the Pirates. Barring injury he'll be in left field virtually every day again in 2011.

In his age 21 season, Tabata proved he can hit major league pitching and play a great left field. That earned him a seventh place finish in Rookie of the Year voting. He needs to work on plate discipline, and it would be nice if he developed a bit more power. Still, it was a very impressive debut for one of the better prospects we've seen in recent years.

2010: 102 games, .299/.346/.400, 61 Runs, 4 HR, 35 RBI, 19 SB

Those are fourth outfielder numbers for a player in his prime, but they're absolutely great for a 21-year-old. I'm not sure Tabata will be a lot better in 2011 - there's almost always a continuing adjustment period in the second year - but Tabata has hit at every level of the minor leagues so I don't see why he can't put up similar numbers over a full season. I am also expecting a bit of development in power. Between AAA and MLB he had 47 extra base hits last year, only seven of which were home runs.

For 2011 I am looking for Tabata to hit .290/.350/.420 with 100 runs, 9 home runs, 55 RBI, and 35 steals. That's a good #2 hitter and a great age 22 season.

February 25, 2011

2011 Position Preview: Center Field

Andrew McCutchen is your center fielder, for better or for worse. By the way, it's better. You need a legitimate superstar to win a championship, and McCutchen is it for Pittsburgh. It's invaluable to have his name at the top of your lineup every day, and his glove anchoring your outfield defense.

A lot of people who play fantasy baseball are saying McCutchen will get overdrafted. He won't. He's a deserving second or third round pick. Let's look at what he can do:

2009: 108 games, .286/.365/.471, 74 Runs, 12 HR, 54 RBI, 22 SB
2010: 154 games, .286/.365/.449, 94 Runs, 16 HR, 56 RBI, 33 SB

McCutchen got hurt repeatedly last year and still missed only eight games. He played on the worst hitting team in the National League in years and still scored 94 runs despite not batting leadoff until two months into the season. He saw no pitches to hit whatsoever and was 23 years old and still cracked 16 home runs. He played for the most risk-averse manager in Pirates history and still stole 33 bases.

McCutchen will be better in 2011. He'll be 24. It's time for not a breakout season - no, that will be 2013 when he scores 130 runs - but a big season nonetheless. What skill does he not have? I am looking at 110 runs, 18 home runs, 70 RBI, .286 batting average of course, and 45 steals. He should slug around .480 and get on base at a .370 rate. That's the first piece to a championship team.

February 8, 2011

Ohlendorf Heads to Arbitration

The Pirates went to arbitration with Ross Ohlendorf today. As I explained earlier, this is a shortsighted move with little upside other than a small financial gain in the immediate future. Ohlendorf is hoping for $2.025 million and the Pirates offered $1.4 million. A decision should come down tomorrow.

My point as made a few days ago is that there's just no reason to argue over this. In an arbitration hearing, the team basically will present its case as to why Ross Ohlendorf sucks. There's nothing productive about that, either for his confidence or for the team's ability to resign a pretty good pitcher. Does anyone seriously think that with salaries where they are, Ohlendorf isn't worth $2.025 million? Even if the Pirates win, it will be a Pyrrhic victory indeed.

February 5, 2011

Great Pirates in History: Doug Drabek

Today we salute the ace of the most recent good Pirates teams, righthander Doug Drabek.

Doug Drabek threw a low 90s fastball, a hard slider, a slow curveball and his out pitch, a sinker. It was decent stuff, but Drabek's stuff belied his true talents. He had a fluid pitching motion, used the inside part of the plate, fielded his position well, was decent with the bat and held on runners. Nothing about him was superlative but he had no weakness. The Pirates rode Drabek's arm to three straight playoff appearances, and it is no coincidence that that streak stopped when he signed with another team.

The 1986 Pirates had been an awful group, a 64-98 last place team. None of the organization's young talent had really arrived, leaving a collection of average midcareer veterans not unlike the Dave Littlefield teams two decades later. Yet rather than take the approach of the current management group, GM Syd Thrift set out to aggressively improve his club by trading what few marketable assets he had.

Separate deals would bring in Bobby Bonilla, Andy Van Slyke, and others, but the trade for Doug Drabek was no less important and no less successful. Remember, this was at the height of George Steinbrenner's impatience. The Pirates dangled 33-year-old starter Rick Rhoden, the staff's ace who was coming off a career year in 1986 - 15-12, 2.84. Pittsburgh threw in two middle relievers and was able to get Drabek, who was ten years younger than Rhoden and was coming off a solid major league debut season in which he went 7-8, 4.10. Also coming over was Brian Fisher, who would also be in Pittsburgh's rotation for two years. Not surprisingly, Rhoden had 30 wins left in his arm while Drabek would win another 148 games.

Through July 1987, the trade looked terrible - Drabek was 2-10 with a 4.55 ERA while Rhoden was 13-6 with a 3.44 for New York. But then came one of Drabek's patented stretch runs: he went 9-2 with a 3.06 ERA in the final two months to finish at 11-12, 3.88, an improvement over his rookie year. Drabek was hurt by the long ball but established himself that year as a control pitcher, allowing only 2.3 walks per nine innings.

1988 brought further improvement - 15-7, 3.08 - and by 1989's 14-12, 2.80 campaign, Drabek was an established top of the rotation starter. He had gone 10-2, 1.90, in the final 18 games of 1988, then was solid throughout 1989. The Pittsburgh Pirates Encyclopedia claims Drabek's 1989 was "disappointing." This is a shocking claim by a purported authority - he had allowed fewer hits, home runs, runs and earned runs per inning than in any previous season while throwing a career high (to that point) 244 innings and eight complete games. It was a good enough season that by 1990, Drabek had earned the ball on Opening Day as Jim Leyland's ace.

The 1990 season was a storybook year, as the Pirates went 95-67 - a shocking 21 game improvement over 1989. Drabek almost unanimously won the Cy Young Award for his campaign, getting 23 of 24 votes. He went 22-6 with a 2.76 ERA and a 1.06 WHIP. He threw one-hit shutout on a hot August day against a pretty good Phillies lineup, a game in which he had a no-hitter in that game with two outs in the ninth inning. But my pick for most impressive game was his pennant clincher in St. Louis on September 30. Drabek neatly dispatched the Cardinals in 80 pitches, allowing only three hits and zero walks in a shutout win. For the first time in 11 years the Pirates were returning to the playoffs.

Drabek next got the ball five days later for Game 2 of the NLCS. Already leading the series 1-0, the Pirates looked poised with their ace on the mound to take a commanding lead heading back to Pittsburgh. But the offense could only muster one run and Drabek lost a complete game decision, 2-1. The Pirates dropped Games 3 and 4 at Three Rivers Stadium and suddenly needed a win to stay alive. Drabek went 8.1 innings, allowing only one earned run, and got the win as the Bucs stayed alive, 3-2. But a 2-1 loss doomed the Pirates' fate. You win and lose as a team, but let's point out that Drabek posted a 1.65 ERA over 16.1 innings while Barry Bonds hit .167 in the series with one RBI.

Suffering from a lack of run support in 1991, Drabek went only 15-14 despite posting a 3.07 ERA in 35 starts for a division winning team. But he was still the team's ace and still got the ball in Game 1 of the playoffs, throwing six shutout innings to beat the Braves. With the Pirates leading 3-2 in games, Drabek took the mound again in Game 6 with the chance to clinch the pennant. The offense again failed Drabek, as he went the distance but lost 1-0. The Pirates lost in seven; Drabek had an 0.60 ERA in 15 innings; Bonds hit .148 with zero RBI.

Drabek posted his sixth straight solid season in 1992. He started his third straight Opening Day and went 15-11 with a 2.77 ERA, throwing a career high 257 innings. The Pirates won the division again and Drabek got the ball in Game 1 again. This time he pitched poorly and lost Game 1, then lost Game 4 in a mediocre performance. But his team helped him for once, and so he took the mound again in Game 7 at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. Drabek led 2-0 through eight innings. Jim Leyland had his Grady Little moment, leaving his ace in for three more batters and 129 total pitches, unspeakable things happened, and that was it for the '92 Pirates. Barry Bonds had two RBI in the series for a grand postseason total of three in three years.

And having won 95, 98, and 96 games over three seasons, Pirates management decided to blow the team up. Drabek, allowed to sign with the Astros, was just one player gone in a mass exodus of talent. Van Slyke hit the wall and the hometown nine were never the same.

None of the postseason failures, however, should diminish the fact that this was a great team. And for five years, 1988-92, Drabek was one of its great players. He went 92-62 with a 3.02 ERA in Pittsburgh and averaged 227 innings and 33 starts a year. Consistently displaying impeccable control, he allowed only a 1.15 WHIP and 2.2 walks per nine innings. And he turned things on in the postseason to the tune of a 2.05 ERA in seven starts, with only one home run allowed. For all that he is truly a great Pirate in history.

February 1, 2011

Ross Ohlendorf's Arbitration Case

As mentioned today in Jennifer Langosch's mailbag, Ross Ohlendorf is the only remaining Pirate who hasn't settled his arbitration case. Ohlendorf asked for $2.025 million while the Pirates offered $1.4 million. Let's assess his case.

You no doubt know well that Ohlendorf was ineffective in his rookie year. He went 1-4, 6.46 with the Yankees and Pirates. The fact that the '08 Yankees had to resort to Ohlendorf 25 times out of the bullpen tells you a lot about why they missed the playoffs that year.

In 2009 Ross had a breakout year in which he went 11-10 with a 3.92 ERA. Making 29 starts, he threw 177 innings with a 1.23 WHIP. The only issue was his home rum rate, 1.3 per nine innings, but he was the Pirates' best pitcher and threw well enough to be a legitimate #2 starter and 15 game winner on an average team.

Last year of course, Ohlendorf again pitched well but was the biggest victim of the Pirates' ineffective offense. Despite a 4.07 ERA he went 1-11 in 21 starts (108 innings). His WHIP went up to 1.37 but his home run rate declined to 1.0/9. Ross also was injured twice. It was the greatest lost season of all time by a pitcher.

I think it's pretty uncontroversial that Ross's worth is closer to the higher figure. But the way arbitration works hurts him in two ways. First, players only receive about 40% of their market value. At that point Ross would be fine - his figure implies only a one year, $5 million deal on the open market, a price he would certainly command.

The second issue is more problematic: Arbitration is based on a player's baseball card stats as reflected in say, 1988 Topps. So the 1-11 record in 2010 really hurts him even though we know it's no reflection on how well he pitched. Same with the ERA - it won't be looked at as good, even though we know the Pirates' defense declined to a point where his 2010 ERA is actually the most impressive of his career. For arbitration purposes he's a guy who had a bad year in 2008, a good year in 2009, and a bad year in 2010 - even though clearly he's coming off two good years.

So my conclusion here is twofold. First, the Pirates likely would win that case. And second, it's not worth it. During an arbitration case, the Pirates would be forced to, in a quasi-judicial hearing, basically make the case that Ross Ohlendorf isn't a good pitcher. This is the kind of thing that destroys team-player relationships. You will very rarely see a player who goes to an arbitration hearing end up resigning with that team.

To save $600,000, it's just not worth it. Pay the man.