The Hanging Curve – Baseball Opinion Blog with MLB Analysis that won’t Bend or Break

Jeff Passan Writes Stupid Article

First off, here is the journalistic abortion that Passan published yesterday.

If you didn’t care to read it, you are not the only one who doesn’t want Passan stealing five minutes of your life.  Let me sum it up:  the GMs, the fans, hell even the press (the rest of the press), everyone except the players and Passan himself are responsible for fueling some “terrible fire of excitement” over prospects.  Not only does this fire exist, apparently it is bad too–he’s a little roundabout on that point, though.  The “promotion of talent long before it reaches the major leagues” is labelled an “uncomfortable reality”.  I guess that’s double talk for evil.

Now, I really don’t care too much about Tommy Hanson, Matt Wieters, or Gordon Beckham, but I do care about Andrew McCutchen (see previous post) and thank goodness, this article is mostly about him, presumably because he had the most sound bites to work with.  Personally, if I were supporting the rambling, reaching thesis of Passan’s article, I may use Wieters, 4-28 with 1 R, 0 RBI, and a .422 OPS as my example.

Passan seems to think McCutchen is not ready for the big show.  This despite four and a half years of minor league service where he has moved up and performed at each level he encounters.  This despite one and a half years in AAA.  This despite the fact that before this season management had areas of emphasis they wanted Cutch (yep, I call him Cutch “already” too Passan) to work on, like stolen base efficiency, which he promptly showed he could improve.  This despite the fact that every sigle time he’s gone to the plate he’s had a great at bat and looks like a guy who has been playing in the Majors for a couple years.  I know, I know, Passan probably hasn’t seen this.  I doubt he’s seen McCutchen’s stats, or watched him play, or even knows much about the Pirates in general.  No, Cutch is ready.  As I stated in my post on the McLouth trade, it was going to be a little difficult deciding who was going to lose playing time when he came up, but Atlanta’s begging made that choice a little easier.  So why isn’t Passan up in arms over Rick Porcello?  This guy is 20 years old and for the sum total of his professional career he pitched 125 innings in A+ league last season–and this year started on the Tigers’ rotation.  Instead, he spends a column lavishing him in praise of how mature and good he is.

Passan continues with this brilliant piece of journalism:

“All those guys are great players, and they’re going to bring a lot to this game when they settle in,” McCutchen said. “It’s a new regime coming in. I think we’re going to help keep the game going and bring excitement and fans.”

Never mind McCutchen’s delusions of grandeur. He’s 22. He grew up in a baseball culture whose fans and media deified him as a teenager, the way basketball has long done with its prime talent. He saw his every accomplishment broadcast to a frothing group of Pirates followers, the same ones who have to be so confused by this all: 17 straight losing seasons, and they’re trading a player in McLouth they had developed and locked up to a team-friendly contract, for … three more prospects.

This quote from Andrew is presumably about all the young baseballers in the article–Wieters, Hanson, Beckham–but it is not really clear from the context, and for all we know he could be talking about only the Pirates or for that matter all of the young athletes in combined professional sports.  Assuming he’s talking about the other youngsters, he basically says “those guys are great”, and “all of them [myself included] will bring excitement and fans” to the game.  Well, haven’t they?  Isn’t that your premise, Passan, that we are all salivating over these players already and too soon?  So where’s the delusion?  Enter brilliant segue into McLouth trade criticism.  There are legitimate criticisms of the McLouth trade to be made:  the Pirates didn’t get enough in return for McLouth or perhaps that the Pirates alienated much of the clubhouse with the trade.  The first concern is fair, but I think they did get enough.  The second concern I think is also fair but easy to counter:  these players get payed millions of dollars to play a game.  If they can’t deal with a common occurrence such as a trade, they don’t have to pick up their paycheck anymore.  They’ll cool down in a week or so anyways.

Critiquing the trade in terms of the 16 straight losing seasons (that’s right, I think its still only 16 so far Passan) is ridiculous.  Running a franchise based on 16 seasons of the past with the short-sighted goal of one winning season is folley.  Just look at past management’s free agent and trade acquisitions for how this turned out:  Jeromey Burnitz, José Hernández (twice), and the granddaddy of them all, Matt Morris.  Yes, if the Pirates were the Yankees they could simply buy a new team every year and would only have to worry about a couple of their prospects working out, like Joba Chamberlain and Phil Hughes.  The Pirates, like many other teams, must always develop through the farm system, constantly acquiring prospects at every level of the minors through every possible means (Trades, Latin America, Amateur Draft, Japan…India), developing most of their big leage team internally, and this means you have to trade your veterans before they leave on their own.  The fact of the matter is the Pirates weren’t shopping McLouth, they would have much rather traded Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sánchez, Jack Wilson, or John Grabow, but the Braves were willing to part with enough of their own future the pry McLouth away.

Passan has the balls to end his column with this gem:

They are the next wave of heroes who haven’t done anything particularly heroic. Oh, well. That’s how it goes. And it’s something for which no one in baseball seems too terribly eager to apologize.

Oh that’s right, Passan.  Last Tuesday you were drafted in the amateur draft, made it through four or more levels of minor league play with legitimate results, and then were called up to the big show.  That one-in-a-million accomplishment is not very heroic at all.

I’ll leave you now with this query:  Passan, three weeks ago you devoted an entire column to the fact that Stephen Strasburg won’t play in the majors this year (No shit?  He won’t?).  Is this the hype machine of which you speak?

Nate McLouth Has Been Traded

Nate McLouth, trotting the bases

Nate McLouth, trotting the bases

The timing of this is really quite shocking to me.  It was financially advantageous to keep Nate around for most of the remainder of his reasonably-priced three-year contract (this was not a salary dump–of the $15.75 million Nate was guaranteed, about two was already paid out, and take into account the major league minimum the three players will make for their first three years in the bigs, and you’ve got about 10 million net over three years…not a dump by any measure), and while I would expect a move like this in the second-to-last or final year of his contract, right now was seemingly not the time for such a trade.  However, let us look closer.  The Pirates outfield, antetrade, was Nyjer Morgan, Nate McLouth and Brandon Moss.  Andrew McCutchen was on cusp of making the major league team this spring, but the management had a couple legitimate (if “nit-picky”) aspects of his game that they wanted to see improved, like stolen base efficiency.  Another concern, which was not publicly voiced by management, was Major League service time.  He has performed admirably in AAA so far this season, and looked primed to come up to the big league club, especially since call him up now makes it unlikely that this entire year will count against his service time, thus basically adding another year to how long the Pirates control him (or so I understand it).

So why didn’t they just bring him up?  Well, who do you replace?  Theoretically, none of these players should block a prospect of McCutchen’s caliber.  It was generally accepted in the “Pirates Community” (all seventeen of us) that McLouth would give way in center field to McCutchen; but you don’t just bench him, he hits home runs and has speed.  You would move him to a corner:  likely right field because left field in PNC park is much larger than right and has an odd (and deep) notch in left-center.  Nyjer Morgan can absolutely fly in left field, and has much improved his defensive presence this year, so much so that he is currently the best defender, regardless of position, in the major leagues according to “ultimate zone rating”, as well as other metrics.  Morgan will save at least 35 runs (over average replacement) this year with his glove, so if you put McLouth who (despite a Gold Glove award) does not fare well according to most defensive metrics, in left, you lose a lot of runs defensively.  However, if you put him in right, you put Moss on the bench, which is tantamount to giving up on him:  25-year-olds do not generally develop well as fourth outfielders.  The power isn’t there and he hasn’t played well this year, but you still can’t sit him down, not until he proves vehemently that he can’t do it.  So, pragmatically, he is a little blocked by this outfield.  What are we to do?

Along comes Atlanta:  “We have an absolutely god-awful outfield with the likes of Gregor Blanco, Garret Anderson, Matt Diaz and Jeff ‘almost one month out of every year I can legitimately hit’ Francouer.  We want Nate McLouth.”  Interesting.  To me, it is fairly clear that this deal was Atlanta driven:  they came to the Pirates, desperate to get McLouth to shore up their outfield and energize a lineup anchored by Chipper “Methusala” Jones.  According to Huntington (Pirates GM for those not in the know), Atlanta was up front with the idea that Tommy Hanson and whoever their second best prospect is would not be involved in any deal.  The demands the Pirates made were initially turned down.  They eventually caved to the original demands.  The package:  Charlie Morton, who will replace Snell in the rotation after he gets bombed for 5 earned runs in 5 innings with 6 walks versus a lowly Houston team on Sunday, Jeff Locke, a high upside young pitcher (a lefty, tantalizing) who throws heat and an excellent curveball, as well as a work-in-progress changeup, and Gorkys Hernández who was in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects last year and ranked fourth among Atlanta prospects this year.

Hernández is perhaps the most interesting piece of the trade.  Gorkys’ speed is indisputable, and his patience and bat at the plate are quite good for a 21-year-old.  I’ve heard comparisons to Nyjer Morgan and Juan Pierre–that is, that he completely lacks power.  However, Pierre had one home run in his approximately 1500-plate-appearance minor league career, while Gorkys has 14 in an almost identical number and Nyjer had only seven in over 2200 plate appearances.  Clearly, he already has more power than these guys, and he has bat speed.  They say his power could develop:  sometimes “they” are right about this, sometimes wrong.  Take a look at McLouth’s own minor league numbers:  yearly homerun average is not dissimilar.  What’s that you say, he hit twelve in one year at Hickory?  Turns out, Hickory is the same place where Nyjer hit four of his seven in one year.

What this trade comes down to is the Pirates new working model.  Gone are the days of trading Aramis Ramírez and Kenny Lofton (yes he was old but still putting up a useful OPS) for José Hernández (a 33-year-old who literally sat out the last week of 2002 so he would remain one shy of Bobby Bonds strikeout record) and Matt Bruback–even at the time I don’t believe this guy was considered a prospect.  Pretend that he was though.  One lousy prospect (at a time when teams were far more willing to part with top prospects than nowadays) and a well below-average aging veteran for an above-average aging veteran and possibly the best young third baseman in the game.  Now that is a salary dump.  Here to stay are the days of taking comparatively small financial risks on lots of talented youngsters, developing them in your minors, and controlling the good ones for five or six years of their young career, signing some to fairly cheap extensions while young, before trading them away for more prospects.  Or worst case scenario letting them go in free agency for draft picks.  It’s all about calculated risk, delaying most financial risk until players are already showing promise at the major league level.  Compare this with signing extremely expensive “proven” veterans who still fail at an alarming rate.  How’s Putz, New York?  Boston–you liking Brad Penny?  Not only can the Pirates literally not afford to do that while still fielding an entire baseball team, it is not a model that has worked well for any team like the Pirates.

One more thing.  We must force ourselves to judge this trade as we see it now, not as things pan out.  Sure, all the prospects could fail, but it is the potential and consensus upside seen by scouts that makes them valuable now.  Look at it from the other side:  Nate McLouth has just come off a very good year, and that could turn out to be a career year, but even if it does, I think both sides suceeded in this trade.  Atlanta got a guy who is playing with pop and speed, and doesn’t miss any plays he gets to (even if he doesn’t get to enough), who is fairly cheap for this year and then two more, while the Pirates got some players who might be on the next good Pirates team, because face it:  even if they don’t have a losing record this year, the next good Pirates team probably won’t hit the field until at least 2011.