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

Pirates Club Manatees

Let me start by notifying any PETA representatives that stumbled across this that no actual animals were harmed, with the possible exception of whatever may have gone into the hot dogs they serve at the ballpark.

For the past several years, the Pirates tune up for their spring training schedule by playing Manatee Community College in an exhibition game.  While the school that sits just down the road from the Pirates spring facilities has changed their name to something along the lines of the “State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota”, the fierce rivalry has not been lost.  Last year they actually managed to beat a “Pirates” squad of minor leaguers, and it appears that this year they brought in the ringers to help assure victory:  Steve Pearce and Brandon Moss were two representatives with some major league experience.   John Van Every also came in off the bench (he has seen 31 plate appearances and 0.2 innings pitched for the Red Sox).

The Jason Bay trade contingent performed admirably, as Bryan Morris started off the game throwing a perfect inning with two strikeouts.  The aforementioned Moss (who has been offensively meek in Pittsburgh) went 2-2 with a double, 2 runs and an RBI.  Top prospect Pedro Alvarez went 3/4, also with a double, a run and an RBI.

For the Manatees, B.J. Zimmerman cranked a solo home run off Jeff Sues for their only run.  They did manage a respectable eight hits and four walks (it’s good to see Pittsburgh’s pitchers still know how to walk batters, even throughout the farm system).  Shortstop Nick Goody had a tough time in the field and committed three errors.

The game was only seven innings, I believe by design, and the final score was 6-1 for the Pirates.  Nothing quite like a local state college beatdown to get spring training started off right.

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.

Pirate Booty

It has been nearly a month since the Pirates completed their foray into the 2008 trade market (they were also able to send Bautista to Toronto past the deadline) with the big-splash, three-team deal sending Bay to the Bay City.  Here’s a breakdown of how all the bits and pieces of the various deals have fared, starting with the players that have departed from the Bucs.

  • Xavier Nady has continued his career year without pause.  He has already blasted eight long balls in 27 games with the Yankees, boosting his slugging percentage and OPS while his average and OBP have barely budged.  I find this pace unlikely to continue into next season, especially in the average/OBP side of things, he does have pretty good power though.  Even with Matsui back, Nady has remained a constant fixture in left field, Matsui moving into DH to help keep him healthy.
  • Dámaso Marte has not fared too well with the Yankees.  In 12 games he has a 8.68 ERA with seven walks in 9.1 IP.  He does, however, have 14 K, and four of his earned runs came to a walk of Byrd grand slam shortly after donning his pinstripes.  I think the Yankees have the wrong idea about Marte: I think he does better as a full-inning setup man (as I’ve said before) than as a lefty specialist.  The Yankees have pitched him less than an inning in half his appearances.
  • Jason Bay hit the ground running in Boston.  He has hit .333/.385/.529 with 20 R, 4 HR, 18 RBI and 3 SB in 21 games.  Plus, he has already compiled three outfield assists prowling the MUCH smaller Boston left field.  His first game with the Sox he tripled and scored the winning run in the bottom of the 12th.

Now, for the booty the Pirates plundered, starting with the Yankees deal:

  • Jeff Karstens’ first two games with the Pirates were brilliant.  He pitched six scoreless innings his first outing, following up with a game in which he lasted 7.2 perfect innings, and ended up giving up two hits in a CG shutout.  Since then, he has sparkled a bit less, but still his overall Pittsburgh stat-line is 3.48 ERA, 12/9 K/BB and a 2-3 record in 31.0 IP.  His problem so far has been 5 HRs in the last three starts.  I like Karstens because he has some pretty decent stuff, with absolutely no fear as a pitcher.  He pounds the strikezone like a redneck does his wife, which will in the end make him prone to up and down outings.  He has been, by far, the most efficient Pirate pitcher in recent memory (although Maholm has been pretty good about this).
  • Ross Ohlendorf has pitched six games for the Pirates AAA Indianopolis, going 3-3 with a 3.24 ERA and an exquisite 35/8 K/BB ratio in 41.2 IP.  He hasn’t shown much at the major league level yet, but Ohlendorf projects as third to fifth starter.  With the recent revelation that only Maholm is a lock for the 2009 rotation (I heard this on last night’s broadcast), he should at best be in the rotation and at worst help light a fire under some guys to get THEM into the rotation.  Both Snell and Gorzellany obviously have some offseason work to do…Snell needs to do some film study and mental work, Gorzo probably just needs to get back to being healthy after getting ravaged by Jim Tracy last year; but you can never be too sharp mentally.
  • Daniel McCutchen–hearing a McCutchen was being involved in this trade made my heart skip two or three beats.  By far the best prospect in the Pirates system for the last couple years has been Andrew McCutchen and for a second I thought the new management shipped off our best hope for success in the next few years, but instead it was a McCutchen we would be receiving.  He has pitched at AAA Indy for 6 games as well, going 2-2 with a 4.62 ERA.  This ERA may be a little unfairly inflated because he has a 1.14 WHIP and a pretty good 27/7 K/BB, so perhaps he has just had a little bad luck, or perhaps it’s the 8 HR he has already given up.  Again, this guy hopefully either enters the rotation or pushes some guys into a good healthy competition and at worst he becomes pitching depth in an organization that (before Huntington did so much work this year) was absolutely devoid of anything that could be claimed as a pitching prospect besides recovering Brad Lincoln and possible burnout Daniel Moskos (he was a stretch when drafted, but still has been puzzlingly bad compared to the solid first-round talent most teams pegged him as).
  • Jose Tabata is the most exciting thing to come out of these trades, at least prospect-wise.  He was listed behind Joba Chamerlain and Ian Kennedy as the Yankees’ third-best prospect.  He turned 20 two weeks ago and had to wait for a couple weeks or so after the trade to get started with AA Altoona because of a wrist injury.  Some have compared him to a young Manny Ramirez, but comparisons aside, he rehabbed in the Rookie League GCL Pirates for four games with an eye-popping (as it should be) .455/.538/1.091 (yes that’s AVG/OBP/SLG, not OPS) with 4 R, 2 HR and 7 RBI.  In AA Altoona he hasn’t slowed down much with .369/.423/.569 and 13 R, 2 HR, 8 RBI, and 6/6 in SB attempts.  Considering that having barely turned 20, his power has likely not developed very much (escpecially since he is coming off a wrist injury), a .569 slugging average for such a young player in AA is very impressive.  I will definitely keep you posted on how he is doing.

And now on to the Bay deal:

  • Craig Hansen.  Ugh.  He has not performed well with the Pirates thus far.  There is no doubting the kid’s electric stuff.  He has a mid-90’s fastball and a tight, late-breaking slider that is just devastating.  When it’s in the strikezone.  For that matter, he has to get his fastball in the strikezone just so he has a CHANCE to throw his slider.  As was being rumored, he has been optioned to AAA Indy to work out some kinks in favor of 25-year-old reliever Jesse Chavez.  His outing last night in a bizarre (but at that point tight) game was a microcosm of his struggles.  He came into a tight game (Russel feels he has nothing to lose throwing the young guy into the fire at this point in another likely losing season), could not get the ball over the plate and ended up walking in two runs in a row to give up the lead and blow the save opportunity.  The other two runs he “earned” were inherited by the next pitcher.  His line is 0-2, 8.10 ERA, 3/12 K/BB (shudder) in 10 IP.  He has earned a save.  Last year and early this year have been encouraging that this kid can turn it around.  Hopefully the Pirates minor league coaching staff does more good than harm with him (not guaranteed by any means) and he’ll be the closer-in-waiting setup man for a few years to come.
  • Bryan Morris was the only prospect the Pirates received in this deal who wasn’t major league ready or close to it.  He missed 2007 with Tommy John surgery and pitched well so far this year with a 3.20 ERA and 72 K in 81.2 IP before the trade.  With the Class-A Hickory team, he has gone 0-2 with a 5.04 ERA and 11/12 K/BB in 14.1 IP.  HIs record is meaningless as the ‘Dads are 20-43 this year, but the walks are a little worrisome.  He managed to keep them to a not terrible 3.42/9 IP with the Dodger’s affiliate, but last year in rookie ball his walk rate was not good.  Something to keep an eye on for sure.  He has two good pitches and a changeup is in progress; he could go up or down from here.
  • Andy LaRoche was a very interesting piece to this trade.  His minor league numbers have been pretty impressive (.294/.380/.517 with 95 HRs over six years) but the Dodgers never really gave him a chance and instead opting to trade for Casey Blake to man third while plugging in Nomar Garciaparra at SS (shudder).  So far he has been pretty bad for the Pirates, only batting .125 while currently mired in an 0-for-20-something slump, but he does have a couple of dingers and 6 walks in 64 ABs.  I would wager that walk rate beats anyone who is currently on the Pirates excluding McLouth.  While showing great HR power even in the minors, some argue that his power ceiling is already met, evidenced by his lack of doubles in the minor leagues.  Time will tell:  he will be given a far better chance to succeed than he got with the Dodgers; Neil Walker is not ready offensively or defensively (but still quite young at 22) and Scott Boras, agent of first round pick Pedro Alvarez, has decided to play more games with the Pirates, after they defeated him in signing negotiations.
  • Brandon Moss has been the sole performer out of this deal so far.  Only batting .247 at the moment, he has an impressive 4 HR, 5 2B and 10 BB in his 81 ABs so far.  He’s patroled both corner spots well, more often playing the huge LF area vacated by Bay and turned in 2 double plays with 3 outfield assists already.  As opposed to LaRoche, Moss hit a decent number of homies in the minors with a prodigous amount of doubles, so that bodes well for his developing power.  Expect the 2009 Pirates outfield to be McLouth, McCutchen, Moss/Pearce–either in Platoon or whoever wins the job.  Expect him to be a fixture for a few years to come, perhaps being a centerpiece on the next competitive Pirates team.

Well, that’s how the Pirate booty has fared so far.  I’ll keep you informed.

Jason Bay to Boston

The Pirates, coming right down to the wire, have traded Jason Bay.  Most of the rumors around this deal involved the Marlins, but Pittsburgh abandoned that idea this afternoon (the Marlins sounded like they were demanding Manny, minus most of his salary, for Rick VandenHurk and a first baseman’s mitt) in favor of a swap with the Dodgers.  The Red Sox will get Bay, who is nearly as good as Manny but without all the drama.  Watch his numbers (RBI, runs, HR) balloon with great hitters around him and the Monster instead of a 390-foot fence in left field.  The Dodgers will get Ramirez and probably a boatload of cash.  The Pirates get a great take (from their perspective), both unloading some payroll on a player whom would probably be gone after his contract was up anyway, and in picking up some young prospects.  They receive Andy LaRoche, Bryan Morris, Brandon Moss, and Craig Hansen.

Andy LaRoche was great in the minors but for some reason (even with all their injuries) the Dodgers just wouldn’t let him play.  Definite upgrade (and younger to boot) at third from Bautista, who should now take his real role as an excellent super-sub.  Morris will go to the class A Hickory Crawdads to show off his stuff.  I’ve heard good fastball, excellent slider, and boy do the Pirates need some pitching depth.  Brandon Moss should be a pretty decent fill in for LF until McCutchen is ready to come up for the CF job (September or 2009 season) and he’s young.  Not bad even if he ends up being your bench guy.  Finally, Craig Hansen is ready to join the Pirates now terrible bullpen, and at 24 he’s probably not getting any worse right now.

To me, it seems like Dodgers pretty much got the hose.  Yes, they did get Manny, but they didn’t really need an outfielder.  Ethier and Kemp are young and very good.  They will continue to play Andruw Jones in center even though they probably shouldn’t, and they have Juan Pierre (who should be on the bench at most).  Likely they will bench one of the young guys and leave the great Pierre in the lineup.  And Manny is only getting older, and Dodgers park is way bigger than Fenway.  Weird.

I am sad to see Bay leave Pittsburgh because, at least publicly, he said that he wanted to stay with the Pirates, but he will likely have far more success in Boston than with Pittsburgh.  Anyways, good luck to all involved.

Update: Bay, Manny, Moss and LaRoche have all hit their first home runs with their new clubs.  Manny has been crushing the ball, hitting .615 with 2 HR, 4 R, 5 RBI.  Bay is also hitting well, .364 with 3 BB, a HR, 3B, 6 R and 3 RBI; plus he has an outfield assist throwing a runner out at second and made a game-saving diving catch in left.  Moss has been hitting pretty decent for Pittsburgh, only .250 but with 4 BB already and a HR.  LaRoche has been less than perfect, only batting .182, but he has managed 2 R and 2 RBI with that, and his homerun last night makes me think he is finding his groove.