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.

Pirates’ Spring Training Under Way

Well, folks, spring is here.  What’s that you say, there’s still snow outside?  OK, fair enough:  spring training is here.  Yesterday the final five Pirates position players reported to Pirate City, with a fairly unprecedented number of players arriving much earlier than required.

The pitchers and catchers have been working for a week already, with a few events of note.  Firstly, it was announced that Joel Hanrahan, one of the more decent relievers the Bucs have this year, suffered a flexor-pronator strain.  This was initially expected to land him on the DL to start the season, but it was reported today that his MRI showed the swelling had decreased substantially and that there was no structural damage.  His timetable for return is still not known, and I would rather see him miss a week or two to start the season than to have this flair up again (or worse still require surgery); nevertheless this information still bodes well.

Secondly, at his own request, Neil Walker reported to training camp with the pitchers and catchers to offer up his services at catcher, a position he hasn’t played at since 2006 when he played in A+ ball and five games at AA Altoona.  I find this interesting since he was moved to 3B (presumably because he couldn’t hack it defensively at C) when the current Coonelly/Huntington regime took over.  Of course, now the Pirates have Pedro Alvarez, who will almost assuredly start at 3B for AAA Indianapolis, and Walker’s future has been very much in limbo.  Pirates’ brass has made no attempt to publicly define a role for Walker moving forward.  Furthermore, Andy LaRoche blocks Walker at third in the majors.  I guess it’s pretty much a moot point if Walker never shows he can hit in AAA or the majors:  his AAA line in 1+ seasons is .248/.291/.428 and he performed poorly in a September callup last year too.  He’s shown good power potential, but .291 OBP isn’t going to cut it.  I suppose you could do worse for a backup plan at C:  the Astros will start another season with J.R. Towles at second string.

Lastly, Octavio Dotel, who should take over the closer spot vacated by Matt Capps after his less than stellar 2009 campaign, was shut down with a side strain.  It sounds like it isn’t very serious and shouldn’t set him back more than a few days.  The bullpen was a weakness after last year, and Dotel and Hanrahan might be two of the brighter spots in what should be an improved ‘pen, so here’s hoping they both come back healthy and soon.

So, starting at 9 AM this morning, the Pirates’ were back on the diamond getting ready for another season.  My expectations are somewhat more tempered this season than they have been in the past few years.  The roster isn’t much different from what we put on the field at the end of last season, but that’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of guys I’m excited to see.  McCutchen tops that list by far, but Lastings Milledge, Garret Jones, Jeff Clement, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton and Andy LaRoche also have me eager to see what they can bring.  I also wouldn’t count this team out of performing well late in the season:  Pedro Alvarez, José Tábata and Brad Lincoln are some pretty high grade prospects who are probably long shots to make opening day but very likely to crack the roster by mid-season, and they certainly could help the team perform pretty well down the stretch.

At any rate, we can rest assured that while we still suffer (depending on where you live of course) below freezing temperatures and drifts of stale snow, there’s a bunch of guys down in Florida running around on some green grass,getting paid to throw and hit a ball around in 60° weather in late February.  It certainly brings a smile to my face.

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.

Team Netherlands Brings Back Memories

Red Tulips

Lush Tulips of the Netherlands

The Pirates, like much of MLB today, played an exhibition game against one of the World Baseball Classic teams, in this case Team Netherlands.  The story lines behind this game are as numerous as they are hilarious.  The Pitching coach for the Netherlands is Bert Blyleven, who pitched for the Pirates in the late 70’s, but perhaps has made his biggest impression by cursing like a Russain sailor on live TV.  Somehow, he still broadcasts for the Twins.  Spend a few minutes looking at some Blyleven clips, you won’t be disappointed.

Other familiar faces include Randall Simon, who had a stint as the Pirates’ lazy-first-baseman-du-jour for parts of the 2003 and 2004 (other entries include Daryle Ward and Ty Wigginton) and made international acclaim not through his mediocre play, but through what has become known as the “Randall Simon Sausage Incident”.  The Milwaukee Brewers hold a Sausage Race, featuring an interracial group of hot dogs (honestly, take a minute to check out their names on the Wikipedia page) loping around the diamond during the seventh inning stretch.  In July of 2003, Randall Simon nailed “Guido” (how the Brewers get away with that I don’t know), the Italian sausage, with a baseball bat, who fell and tripped the hot dog as well.  The Polish sausage helped Guido get up again while the Bratwurst craftily raced on for first place.  Simon was later arrested, paid a fine for disorderly conduct, served a suspension, apologized, and above all else was asked to sign the bat he used and give it to the victim.  Truly, I wish I could make this stuff up; I’d be rich.

Finally, let us not forget Yurendell de Caster, a former Pirates farmhand, who started at third for the Netherlands.  Actually that’s it, I just wanted to make a quick mention even though he doesn’t have a controversial history.  De Caster does have a minor league deal with the Tiger’s now,

Even though the Pirates paraded out a pretty sorry lineup of minor leaguers, some of which I haven’t even heard of before, they still managed to edge out the Netherlands 5-4, taking starter Sydney Ponson for four of their runs in his three innings of work, and then holding on to the lead with a nice showing by the Pirates bullpen, including Matt Capps with 1 IP, 1 H, 2 K and Rule 5 pickup Donald Veal throwing a three strikeout sixth inning.  First round draft pick Pedro Alvarez went 0-4 with 2 Ks.

Image provided courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and it’s author.  Please click the image for licensing details.

Preseason is Upon Us

Today, MLB preseason kicked off, with everyone except the Padres and the Mariners playing their first games.  Hope abounds throughout the league, with every team believing that the carte blanche of the new season brings them playoff hopes.

The Pirates trotted out their predicted starting lineup minus Andy LaRoche, who had some back spasms, against the defending champion Phillies.  The starters came out plenty early, and every Pirate pitcher tossed one inning.  The second base position was strong:  Freddy Sanchez went 2-2 while prospect Shelby Ford blasted a 3-run home run which helped solidify the win.

The Phillies couldn’t muster much against the Pirates pitching, although closer Matt Capps struggled uncharacteristically through the second inning by walking the bases loaded with 12 straight balls.  Donald Veal, a Rule-5 pickup this offseason, picked up the win as the Pirates came through with the 8-2 win.  They face off with the Red Sox tomorrow.

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.

State of the Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates today beat Randy Johnson and the Arizona Diamondbacks‘ team of young guns in a victory fueled by the unlikely contributions of Luis Rivas (2-3, 2 RBI) and Doug Mientkiewicz (1-2, 2 BB, 2 R). Zach Duke pitched well, adding another game to the “good” column in an inconsistent but decent season thus far.

The win brings the Pirates record to 31-33, and they remain at an interesting juncture in the season. The last five series the Pirates have split four with the D’backs, won 2-1 vs. the Astros, split four with the Cardinals, lost 1-2 vs. the Reds, and beat the Cubs 2-1. The Reds are one of those “improved teams” that is starting to pick it up, so maybe I can handle that loss. Houston is a divisional foe, but should be beaten. The Cards and Cubs are divisional foes that are playing extremely well, so wins there are great. Arizona has been tapering off from being one of the best teams in baseball, but still a good team to split with.

So they’ve been playing pretty well as of late, with little help from one of their perceived strengths at the beginning of the season: their starting pitchers. Ian Snell: 2-6 with 5.65 ERA. Tom Gorzelanny: 4-5, 6.83. Paul Maholm: 4-5, 4.48. Zack Duke: 4-4, 4.10 (including today). These four are supposed to be the budding core of Pirate’s team, the supposed “untouchables” in trade talks. Now, Duke and Maholm have been OK, possibly settling into their real roles: they probably are both going to be middle or late rotation starters for their careers. Snell and Gorzelanny (I think to a lesser extent) both have what it takes to be aces. I’ve probably seen Snell pitch more than any of these guys so far this season, and his troubles have been the most puzzling. He has yet to have a scoreless outing, with only four quality starts. His K numbers started out pretty slow and have only recently picked up. Most strange is his control. Historically, he hasn’t had these problems but his walk rate this year has risen by almost 2 BB/9 IP over last year (4.5 vs. 2.9).

Gorzelanny’s struggles are not nearly so puzzling to me. He pitched way too much late last season with his young arm as Jim Tracy ruthlessly pimped him for his 15th win (he didn’t get it). I believe he is injured.

The only real bright spot of the rotation so far this year has come from Matt Morris’ historic sucking. As I reported earlier, Phil Dumatrait was moved into the rotation at the beginning of May and has been a pleasant surprise. As a starter he has gone 3-2 with a 3.22 ERA. The only trouble spot has been his walk rate, which has been a little high (any start where he has walked 3 or more batters has been a no decision or loss), but he’s kept batters off base in general (1.28 WHIP), so therein lies his success.

The Pirates success thus far has not lain in their strength, but in their hitting lineup. Led by McLouth, Bay and Nady, as well as Ryan Doumit (who has been injured for the last 3 weeks), the Pirates are putting runs up on the board. Nady is very likely playing above his skills, but I don’t think McLouth’s stats are too far off from where they should be, and Bay is simply showing us that his knees did indeed take the year off last year. As for Doumit, as long as he stays off the DL (a broken thumb that he actually recovered from in about half the time expected put him on there this season) he has proven that he can hit for power and average as well as play adequate enough defense to remain the starter. The outfield depth looks good, with youngsters Pearce and McCutchen waiting in the wings for possible trades of Nady, Bay and even LaRoche (if he has any trade value left).

With the recent draft, the Pirates picked Pedro Alvarez in the first round, a Boras client who will likely command somewhere between an assload and a fuckload of money, the team has taken a 180° flip from the previous regime’s draft strategy (draft an unskilled player who will sign for peanuts), as well as some other bigger dollar picks. With the new drafting and developmental rhetoric the new regime has laid down (and now started acting on), the team’s distant future looks good, but what about the present? The team’s record is 31-33, they are only 2.5 games out of third place in the division, and the team is playing fairly strong baseball, back at full health, and has hope for the starters to turn the corner. However, the NL Central is not as weak as many predicted. The Cubs and Cardinals are looking great at the top of the division, and even with the Cubs’ best record in baseball, the division is only ten games top to bottom. My guess is the team will entertain trade offers but play a holding pattern and wait until just before the deadline to either ream a desperate contender or try to add a piece to go for the playoffs. My best guess is the team has to be within five games of the division lead (or at least a wild-card berth) to be buyer’s. Mostly though, management appears to be readying the Pirates’ fan for the letdown of a lovable franchise figure (Bay) very likely becoming trade bait.

Pirates Coming On?

At the end of last year, the Pirates had a shift in ownership, and the “new” principle owner was fed up with the management. He ended Littlefield’s reign of what should be remembered as one of the worst managed teams in History.

Littlefield could’ve been a decent manager if his team had money to blow. But they didn’t, and they don’t. He made countless terrible trades, (Aramis Ramirez and the lack of any decent third baseman since 2003, besides Freddy Sanchez filling in; or how about Chris Young?), signed ancient veterans to contracts that ranged from slightly overpriced to downright silly in attempt to acquire “leaders” to mold the rest of his young club. Jeromy Burnitz comes to mind, who apparently after a few months of sub-mendoza batting and subsequent benching decided to enter the exciting field of car detailing. Of course, sometimes he was just unlucky. I still like Casey as a sign at first base; however, a freak accident at first in May and he broke vertebrae in his lower back. But the Mother-Fuck-Lode of Indomitable Stupidity occurred before the trade deadline last year. He traded away Rajai Davis, one of the countless Juan Pierre types he paraded through center field–he was too old for a prospect and I frankly wasn’t too worried about his loss, although he has now found a home with Beane’s band of merry men–for (drumroll…) Matt Morris. Matt Morris and the FULL remainder of his contract. That’s $11 million for 2008. The Pirate’s ENTIRE PAYROLL hovers in the 40’s. In his prime, Morris was good, and probably even worth $11 million. But in his aging, he had begun to lose his edge, (read: velocity).

So, saddled with the terrible burden of Morris, the Pirates trudged on under the new general management of Neal Huntington and skippering of John Russell. Almost no changes were made over the off season. The reason was not that they thought the Pirate’s roster, as-is, could win a pennant. The reason was they had no leverage. Bay was coming off the injury-induced worst season of his young career. Nady had played well but been riddled hamstring injuries, again not playing a full season. Their primary trade targets couldn’t fetch what they should (the new management is committed to selling veterans for prospects) and everyone else was either untouchable (the young starting pitching would NOT be traded) or untradeable (Paulino had a good rookie season but terrible second season; Bautista, who’s that guy?)

Thusly began the season with the hope of simply ending the losing streak. They won two out of three in Atlanta to open the season, and things were looking good. Then, it all started going awry. Jack Wilson went down with a strange calf injury coming out of the box (after a soon-to-be-game-winning hit at least) and the defense, which should be solid, began to record errors at least once per game. The pitching, the perceived strength of the team, walked batters at an alarming rate and was contributing to a 5+ team ERA; the defense produced countless unearned runs. The offense was producing in the upper half of MLB, but they only came to the park on some nights. On others, they couldn’t even produce one timely run and went down 3-2, or 2-1.

Now, again playing Atlanta, the Pirates may have reached a crux in the young season. The starting pitching has come around. Morris was dropped and Dumatrait has been rather serviceable in his absence. Gorzellany, looking healthy after skipping a start with back pain, pitched a downright gem last night. The outfield is leading the league in average, HRs, and slugging, (the trade bait corners and McLouth, heretofore hidden by Littlefield’s Parade of Pierres), the defense has tightened, even before Wilson’s return, and they are scoring when they need to. Just two games under .500 now, and playing two more with Atlanta and their godawful road record. If the Pirates get and hold on to a decent record, the team will stand pat, or even try to add a piece to make a run for the division. Worst case scenario, however, is not that bleak. The trade bait is having great years, and could fetch quite the bundle of prospects to begin the Huntington-Russell Era. The fate of a dozen or so fans hangs in the balance.

Phil Dumatrait to Hang Curve

With Matt Morris being released by the Pirates after his last dismal outing and subsequently retiring, the Pirates have been left with a gaping hole in their rotation. The other four slots are filled by homegrown youngsters who (besides Gorzellany–if he manages to avoid the DL this year he should take his luck to Cactus Pete’s in Jackpot, NV) have been rounding out pretty well.

Instead of plugging the proverbial dike with an oft-injured, post-2005, first-round draft bust “thumb” (JVB, Bullington, Burnett, I’m looking in your direction), Russell et al have decided to bring in Phil Dumatrait, the 26-year-old lefty who so far in the young season has been tasked with pitching four innings with a six run deficit every fifth day once Morris was yanked. All things considered, besides Phil getting a chance at a win, not much will change.

Dumatrait was acquired off waivers over the offseason after being drafted by the Red Sox and then traded to Cincinnati for Scott Williamson (currently residing in the “where are they now” file). He put up some decent numbers in the minors but is pretty much one of those “soft-tossing” lefties that may not be able to have much success in the Majors. He’s walked too many batters for comfort so far this season, but his ERA is quite respectable, especially for someone who’s been mopping up blowouts; at any rate, he give the Pirates a better chance to win than Morris.

This might be the crux of Dumatrait’s career, frankly. He’s not prospect-age any more really, and if he doesn’t get it done now, he may spend the rest of his career bouncing around the league in long relief roles.

As a marginally interesting sidenote, this is the middle game of three that match up southpaws from both teams, the Pirates and the Nationals. This hasn’t happened in a half-score and two years, I believe. I can’t wait for those hangers to fly.