Tagged: Joliet Jake's Take

2007 Year in Review – Pittsburgh Pirates



New Ownership, Buckley, and tidbits

I am proud to announce today that I have been hired as a consultant in the game and have sold Bucco Blog to Baseball Interactive Media (BIM), a privately held group in New York City with interests in Pittsburgh. The deal closed today and a press release will be sent out in the next week I’m told.

Over the winter a couple of media groups talked with me about purchasing Bucco Blog like Calkins Media, but BIM became aggressive late. 

You may have already noticed some subtle changes the last few days and what they have planned for Pirates fans at Bucco Blog is unprecedented. It’s an exciting time as this franchise moves forward.

The good news is that they want me to continue posting. My first love in the game is the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise so I’m happy to do just that. Plus, my consulting work is part-time so I still have availability, but my ears will hopefully be closer to the ground.

Thank you fans – your readership made all this possible.

A special note of thanks goes out to Mark Newman at MLB.com for putting up with my rants and helping me along the last two years, Pirates Media Director Jimmy Trdinich for spending at least a few minutes here and there, an unnamed member of the Pirates front office that called me out last year which opened my eyes, and most importantly to those in the field with their devotion, knowledge, and insight that helped me get the job and know how hard I work here to try and provide the fans with the best coverage of the team.

Let’s Go Bucs!

Boy, did I get hammered about my post on Troy Buckley. Those that wrote seem to feel he is a quality hire that can help move this franchise forward.

Perhaps he can.

But that’s not why I was down on the hire. It had nothing to do with Buckley as an individual and his successful college career, and everything to do with his near non-existent professional experience.

But before I go any further with this, I think there needs to be more research into the conditions of his hire. For instance, the Indians hired Dr. Andrews ASMI lab to do research in-year on their pitching staff. Dr. Glenn Fleisig, who is the labs research director, told Bucco Blog last year that:

"The focus of the institute continues to be research (testing theories, discovering answers, publishing results) and education (training programs for doctors, educational courses for doctors, physical therapists, athletic trainers, coaches, etc.). Thus, individual evaluations was never intended to be a primary focus of ASMI, but since 2002 we have grown the evaluation program as part of our mission to prevent injuries and educate."

So it is entirely possible the Pirates have hired the lab to work alongside of Buckley as the pitching rover like many teams are doing now. Buckley would feed his reports to the lab and they would in turn report back their recommendations. If true, at least that helps explain some of the reason for taking a chance on such an inexperienced rover.

As I said yesterday, there has to be more to this hire than we are hearing. Professional baseball teams don’t pluck a Division I pitching coach off the street and thrust him into such a position, no matter how good he is at the college level. The two arenas are completely different. He would ordinarily start as a pitching coach in the organization and then learn the professional game.

I’ll keep asking questions.

By the way, for those who have a love for pitch counts, injuries, and the like, Dr. Andrews will be presenting the latest information in a three-day event January 25-27 in Columbia, SC. The cost is $450 for most of us. Don’t be too surprised if you meet Buckley there.

Of note is that the lab will be releasing their preliminary study findings on lower WHIP’s, fewer disabled list days, reduction in organizational insurance costs, stronger ERA’s, and the relationship of biomechanical motion, fitness, anatomy, and pitch counts to injury risk. Of course, a lot more will be cover as well.

Fabulous stuff. Well worth the $450.

The Pirates continued their hiring wave by adding Brad Fischer, who was fired from the A’s, and ex-Buc Carlos Garcia who was fired by the Mariners and who will be the minor league infield rover.

Both of these guys are solid hires and seem to be more PR additions than anything because we have very little impact talent their credentials are needed for. Maybe Huntington plans to blow up the major league coaching staff during the season and they are around to move up? Just kidding.. I hope.

But at least Huntington showed he can hire somebody with a name, even if he is giving them the equivalent of "work some from home, earn $20k" type jobs.

The third rover added is Kimera Bartee as the outfield/baserunning rover. I can’t find much on him that makes any difference.

The Yankees fired David Szen today. He was their traveling secretary. I suppose we can guess where all the Hal Steinbrenner leaks were coming from now.

(edit 11:20 AM: a few readers and some close to the Yankees are letting me know Szen pled guilty to filing a false tax return for failing to disclose tips he had earned and may be facing prison time. Oh.. and some are saying Hal is tipping all on his own.)

Dave Littlefield caught a ride with the Cubs. Good for him. I suppose that saved the Pirates some money in 2008. The question to be asked is, what did the Pirates get from the Cubs in this deal, or were we just released of his salary? How many scouts do you know that make $1M per year?

Masumi Kuwata is signing a minor league deal again with the Pirates? Wow. With that media circus, good thing Andrew McCutchen will be starting off in Altoona.

Tractor pull tickets anyone?

Dejan’s December 18th Q&A had some strange utterings. Let’s look at a few:

• For the Pirates to be truly successful, as per the other models for teams in their revenue category, they simply have to follow the Arizona-Cleveland-Colorado models.

Riiighht. Or the Twins. Or the Tigers. Or the Angels. Or <put team name here>.

Come on. It is so sexy to think one club has to follow some other club, but the ones getting it done are creating models to be followed by others. Let’s face it, when a MLB team and the media that follow them say they need to "follow" someone else, then they aren’t planning on getting the job done. Correlation = .99999.

• The Pirates are not blowing up the major-league roster, probably in large part because of concerns such as yours. It is very clear that there is no local appetite for another rebuilding..

The Pirates aren’t blowing up the roster because nobody on the roster is wanted and, those that are either have health issues or Huntington wants too much in Dave Littlefield mode to every team but Cleveland.

Nearly every starting player has been mentioned in rumors so if the Pirates could blow up the roster, they would.

• I agree that money has been a big part of the downfall of the Pirates in the past decade and a half, but not for the same reasons you do, Steve. Rather, it was because they burned far too much of it on stopgap players while skimping on, of all things, scouting and developing. That qualifies as insanity for a low-spending team.

I wonder if Dejan knows the Pirates actually spent at or above the MLB average on player development through 2005, according to Dr. Andrew Zimbalist? Now for scouting, I don’t have numbers but I heard we are underpaying and I assume that means below league average.

Burning money on "stopgap" players and "skimping" on scouting didn’t hurt the Pirates. What hurt the Pirates was refusing to take this club to the next level by ownership who had a broke, mismanaged club and none of the owners would infuse any more cash. Now that we are making money hand over fist, we are starting a six-year rebuilding process so they can reap more profit.

Life is good for Pittsburgh Pirates owners.

It’s the owners greed Dejan.. not a few measly dollars missing in a department or two that hurt this club. Geez.

Hockey anyone?

Readers ask Jake

"Salary dumps, clueless, or nobody answering?" — JT, Baltimore, MD

Your email gave me the thought for yesterday’s article so I had to post this first.

There’s no question the Pirates are being fiscally conservative with player payroll for whatever reason. Call it salary dumps, convenient culture change dumps, or anything else you want, but the fact is, they have/are dumping.

But what does that really mean? Right, nothing. Not yet, anyway. We don’t know what the Pirates short-term goals are yet, much less their long-term ones. But consider this – assuming McLouth is the opening day centerfielder, every single position player except Jose Bautista and Adam LaRoche has been mentioned in trade rumors so far this winter.

Where there is smoke there is usually fire.

So it’s not irrational to conclude the Pirates are at least listening to offers on gutting the roster. As I’ve said here many times over the last two years, that’s the route I would take.

The Pirates imported a new president and general manager who have no credibility in the industry as a team. If John Schuerholz was gutting this roster he might end up with a deal here and there, but we can’t expect that from Huntington. That’s stretching it. So we’ll have to watch and see how short Huntington has to sell, if he has to sell short at all. That’s going to be a key.

The front office is far from clueless. Coonelly is a wizard on player values, I hear. So let’s dispel that notion. As for nobody answering? It takes two to tango and pirateball.com indicated Huntington said he was selling high at the winter meetings. I think that might of been a mistake, but I’m not in the front office of a team. We’ll just have to wait and see.

"Is Neal Walker really the answer at third?" — BH, Iraq

Hello to all the guys and gals in Iraq! Good stuff following the Pirates afar.

I can’t answer your question BH – I honestly don’t know. He’s got a little pop in his bat, he seems to be an OBP machine, and he’s certainly a gamer. But is he a future corner with Shelby Ford and Brian Bixler up the middle? Not on my card he isn’t. Even if the Pirates sign Sanchez long-term, I still don’t see enough pop from Walker to justify him being at third, much less an outfield corner.

So where does that leave Walker? Good question. We’ll watch the additions to the roster in trades over the next year for our clue. In the meantime, it isn’t too far fetched to think he could be trade bait at some point, in my opinion.

"If you were me, would you renew your season tickets?" — LC, Oakland, PA

I’ve been getting asked this question a lot lately. Sure, why not?

It’s hard to believe so many fans are even questioning this when you consider grandstand prices are just $6 a seat on a full season package. That’s cheap entertainment (no pun intended).

Get your tickets.. support the team. No-brainer.

"I remember an article you had about Kris Benson and Ryan Vogelsong making rounds at a children’s hospital with you in 2004. Were they allowed to do that, or were they playing hooky from Mac and John Russell? — RS, Pittsburgh, PA

Kris and Ry didn’t have formal approval of the Pirates to appear, no. I asked Kris through Anna who made the arrangements. Were they somewhere they weren’t allowed to be? No. They were both off that day and would have been back playing video games or waxing Kris’ Ferrari if not at the hospital, be my guess.

From what I gather, you seem to be going in the direction of whether or not John Russell can really make a difference in the clubhouse as a manager.

There’s no question whatsoever that Mac was run over like a steamroller by the players and John Russell was run over just as well. But were the players running over Mac and his staff, or Dave Littlefield and ownership? I think the answer is pretty obvious.

John Russell will go as far as the players will allow him to go. Don’t kid yourself. But isn’t that true of any manager in the game? Do you think Rammy runs harder down the line now that Lou is manager knowing he’ll get right in his face if he doesn’t? No.. Rammy is Rammy, Paulino will be Paulino, and Doumit will be Doumit.

Don’t expect miracles folks.

John Russell and his staff aren’t going to make much of a difference with this club. Bet on that. The players are. At some point in their marginal careers they have to wake up and tell themselves they really like what they are doing. Then things might change.

Well, at least we might win a couple more games a year, that is.

Nothing new on the trade front to report tonight. Most of the teams execs are back with their families doing Christmas shopping and drinking egg nog in their parties. Next week might be a bit active.

How to disguise a salary dump

Make no mistake about the Pirates intentions this winter – they are dumping salary to cover their fanny. And they have done a good job (the figures above include arb raise guesses for Phelps and Castillo had they been members of the club).

Looking at the above table, which is a quick guesstimate, we see the Pirates have shaved about $1.8M from 2007’s 25-man and can apply that to the remaining arb eligible players in Sanchez, Nady, LaRoche, Grabow, and Bautista.

Obviously, $1.8M won’t cover the five eligible so, chances are, we will see another dump. Marte’s $3M should just about do it, assuming they add another MLB minimum salary player on the roster for him. But it will cover Littlefield’s salary if he doesn’t work this year.

I doubt they stop there and have a funny feeling we are going to see Bay traded and, by the July trade deadline, also see Bixler brought up and Wilson dumped. Either that or Huntington will play the other Wilson until September.

Those two additional dumps will clear another $11M or so off the books if done in July.

My guess? Expect it if they perform.

Here is the projected 25-man as of today:

Fill in the blanks for players 22-25, with at least Josh Wilson being one of them.

After Huntington called Torres unfit (great culture stuff, huh?), he traded him for Kevin Roberts and Marino Salas from the Brewers. There’s a lot of ways to look at this deal.

First and foremost, Torres had become disconnected so moving him was the thing to do. That clears his bad air out of the bullpen and gives him potential fresh air with the Brewers.

Nobody knows about Torres’ health but Torres. He was shut down twice in 2007 on paper but as fans, we don’t know if he really needed to be shut down or if it was Littlefield trying to get rid of a pain in Pittsburgh. The same is true about his stats.. throw them away in 2007 – they mean nothing with the conflict he had. However, that is where his makeup questions begin, perhaps.

The Brewers stole Torres. He will do a fabulous job for them if his arm stays healthy. He’s a perfect fit for their park and he is one of the better road pitchers in the league. Again, they stole him IF his arm is healthy.

As for Salas and Roberts, we ended up with two fringe to marginal relief pitchers. Roberts probably has the better shot at making the club one day – years from now, I’d guess.

Readers have written suggesting Robert’s strikeouts per nine innings in 2007 indicates what he’s possible of. Perhaps, but I don’t think that’s a solid way to measure him.

For one, striking out advanced Class A batters with locatable heater and a 12-6 curveball isn’t exactly dominating.

For instance, out of the 173 pitchers in the Florida State League that tossed at least 30 innings (which I’ll call league average), 58 of them (34%) had a better ERA, 81 of them (48%) had a lower WHIP, and his K/9 was only .1 per nine better than league average.

That’s marginal – and that’s at Class A.

The year before in the Sally League, Robert’s ERA was 19% higher than the median of 236 pitchers who threw 30 or more innings, he was .2 K/9 better in K/9, but 54% of the league pitchers had a better WHIP. Todd Redman’s stats that year in the SAL makes Roberts look like a chump in comparison.

Robert’s background includes injuries in high school and college. What they were, I don’t know. But I do know that from 2003 to 2004 he was +44 innings off the mound, +71 from 2004 – 2005, in 2006 the Brewers finally shut him down to a relief role and his workload decreased ever since.

One person who will be happy about Roberts coming aboard is Brad Lincoln who played with Roberts at Houston where Roberts was a much better hitter than he was a pitcher, if you can believe that considering how well he pitched there.

One reader asked if the Pirates would put him back at second and see if his bat lights up again. I doubt that we’ll see that – his fielding was fringy at best.

As for Salas, arm problems in 2006 derailed him after he opened with three blown saves and he’s now on his third team since. Essentially, he finally made AAA as a 26 year old and then got rocked.

One scout’s view of Salas is that he is a 12th man type of reliever (up/down pen arm) with below average command and control. He has a trackable heater in the low 90’s with marginal cut-life, and below average curve and slider.

If Roberts is the catch in this deal, then there was no return other than his potential arm problems down the road, be my guess.

My overall take?

Pure salary dump and a D+ on the trade. But since Torres was known to talk about retirement, this gives both clubs a safe deal – the ever loving money hungry Pirates to dump salary with all the attention being on the "disgruntled" player, and the Brewers losing nothing if Torres does retire.

But, at least Huntington has something on his resume now.

We’ll see if Huntington and Stark’s "culture" change can find more life in these guys arms than Jack Zduriencik and his club’s staff was able to. But don’t count on it.

As for Torres, my bet is he shows up in Milwaukee and make Pirates fans envious that he was traded.

Very kewl stuff here. I hope they also put some green on their shelf too.

I had a few people asking me what the ten player package was the Indians were going to offer for Bay. It was a joke folks.

Others are asking about the Barrett rumor. If Huntington wants a culture change, I’m sure obtaining Barrett will blow a hole in that real quick.

A nice tribute to Jose Castillo was planned tonight but I’m going to leave it alone. I won’t even discuss the blow to potential future Latin American players in the Pirates system.

Instead, I’ll point those who care to my two-part series on Jose: A Hard Look at Jose Castillo I did last winter. I think that pretty well sums up the abuse the young man took before Tracy and his staff compounded it all.

Here’s hoping you catch the ride you want Jose.

Dear Kevin: The fans say..

.. don’t let the door hit your butt as you walk.

Ok.. just kidding.

What I will miss..

1– Not having to watch the local foreclosure lists..

2 — Not having to calculate the daily write-off amount on your loans..

3 — Calculating the teams win/loss rate when you are sitting behind the plate at PNC since 2001 (.478 – I guess you knew when to stay upstairs)..

4 — Wondering how you could be so Internet friendly and your organization so anti-Internet (hint-hint Frank.. open the doors to bloggers)..

5 — All the wonderful hits my site received looking for news on McClatchy and Company..

6 — Wondering how I was going to get a ticket to sit beside you for one game to pick your brain apart..

7 — Wondering if you still had your fan protest shirt from the Bay Area..

8 — Wondering why you were so anti-Pittsburgh in your hiring.

The fans despise you but I have to admit I hoped you would pull it off until you lost control. I know you wanted to.

Good luck.


Time to take a break

It’s been a grueling grind the last two years here driving the daily beat following a losing team, so I’ve decided to take some time off the next couple of weeks.

I’m off to Miami and places beyond to follow the Cubs on their road to the WS thanks to a gracious friend from WGN. I’ll be back full time once the Cubs are eliminated. In the meantime, I’ll still be available via email and I’ll be occasionally posting, just not daily.

Ok – that’s pathetic. You got me.

But it’s the perfect time to take a break because there isn’t much that’s going to be happening the next few weeks around Pittsburgh anyway.

As for Neal Huntington?

He has a chance to make it some around the game have said if he’s able to put together a decent scouting and development team. He’s known as an excellent planner and organizer so he’ll immediately bring some relief to Jeff Andrews’ aching writing hand (sorry Jeff, I couldn’t resist).

What I mean to say is, Huntington’s going to make a lot of changes behind the scenes you probably won’t even notice that could have a startling effect over time within the minor league system and, he hopes, eventually make it to Pittsburgh. That’s the desired culture change Coonelly has been talking about.

The important things to watch over the next month or two, I believe, are who he hires, where he shuffles those he plans to keep, and what plan he announces for the direction of the team (eg.: new five year plan, adding vets, steady as she goes, etc).

As I’ve said numerous times, the complimentary pieces Huntington needs to be successful are the same that the Pirates currently lack in – scouting and development. No matter what you have heard in the press or discussion boards, Huntington is not considered a good evaluator by any means so it’s critical he brings in a solid team as his right arm.

Personally (wild guesses here in the shuffling part), I think Joe Delli Carri has a chance to be his scouting director, Ed Creech will move up to player development director, and Brian Graham will move into an assistant general manager role.

I doubt seriously there will be many name changes because Huntington does have a few battles to overcome before anyone worth a salt is going to jump on his bandwagon. But that’s my own belief.

The key players to watch are special assistants Jack Bowen, Pete Vuckovich, and Jax Robertson. What happens to these men will tell you more about the future of the Pirates than anything.

Bowen has close ties to the Indians so if you see him walk you can pretty much believe he’s thinking like me – Huntington doesn’t have a prayer. To ward that off, Huntington might give Bowen a special gift. We’ll see.

Vuch just wants to keep working close to home I’d bet and he’ll probably get a chance to. He’s still known as a good evaluator, although I’ve questioned that at times here, but he might be off to better pastures like with, say, the Brewers.

As for the players, they are questioning everything just like we are, so I have heard. They are hesitant to believe anything good because that’s the current culture. Words, trinkets, and meetings aren’t going to make them feel better – action is.

I suppose the first order of business they would like to see, although they would probably never admit it, is to see a younger coaching staff put in place. I think they respect Jim Tracy et al but they have had it with them too.

As I’ve said before, Tracy and his group probably feel some remorse that Littlefield is gone so they would probably welcome a gracious exit. At least half of them plan to retire after this gig anyway and Tracy and Colborn can get a ride somewhere else overnight.

So a manager change could be in the future cards. If Huntington does make a change, look for Phil Garner’s name to be mentioned, if Huntington hasn’t already spoken to him. Perhaps Garner will consider Tom Kotchman who has the drive and culture mentality Coonelly and Huntington are going to want to see.

I also hope some solid people are brought into the bowels of the organization where we are severely depleted of quality development personnel. I’m guessing Huntington almost totally reworks he Pirates minor league system. I know I would.

Bottom line? Nothing Huntington will do will change a 16th consecutive year of losing with the roster he has. He knows that, we know that, the world knows that. There has to be a dramatic roster change before winning will ever take root, and culture change has a chance. But culture won’t help win games – professional baseball players will.

So Huntington has to make a decision to either rebuild or continue to play the the Littlefield waiting game hoping for some luck.

Everyone around baseball knows the org needs to be rebuilt from ground up and that means turning current value into future value with the likes of Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Jack Wilson, and anybody else Huntington can deal whose last name isn’t Gorzelanny, Capps, or Maholm. Even Sanchez might exit stage right.

Again, the key to Huntington’s success will be his immediate hires so that’s what you need to focus on, then his stated plan of action. He’ll put his front office group in place, then rework the farm system, and finally go about his plan to rebuild if that’s his intention.

I’m not going to lie to anyone – I’m very disappointed with Coonelly and Huntington. Bob Nutting could have done a lot better. But as some have pointed out, he could have done a lot worse too.

Personally, I see another two to three years where a completely clueless ownership group is taken to the cleaners before they finally step in and say that’s enough. In the meantime they will be happy with the flowing black ink which Nutting absolutely lives for, but in the end, the pressure from the fans will become too much to handle for him.

Nutting doesn’t have the right people in place to pull this off. He thinks he does and that’s my point. I wish them all well but I plan to pound every move they make even harder than I pounded Dave Littlefield because there is no excuse anymore. Why Nutting and McClatchy have fostered an anti-Pittsburgh hiring mentality is simply beyond belief.

I’m fed up as a fan and I’m betting you will be too after the new circus novelty act wears off.

Yin Yang Controversy

The Pittsburgh Pirates division run ended quite some time ago but they have been playing loose lately and have won six of their last nine series against contenders.

And that’s where this story begins.

Before the players could even step one foot onto their charter from Houston to San Diego Sunday, they found themselves embroiled in a major controversy. It seems there are some folks who follow the Dodgers that are calling Jim Tracy’s credibility into question in the Pirates upcoming four-game series with the Pads.

Why, they ask, did the Pirates request Tony Armas Jr. (career 1.13 ERA, 0.50 WHIP vs Pads and second best starter ERA on team in September) to be removed from the rotation in favor of John Van Benschoten (11.38 ERA, 2.29 WHIP in second half) Monday? And if Tracy absolutely wanted to go with youth, why not Bryan Bullington instead?

And why, they ask, did Tracy put Xavier Nady back into the lineup Sunday in Houston knowing he isn’t 100% when the Pirates have the 6th best OPS in baseball in September pretty much without him? That’s a curious move, they say, when Nady has a career .179 batting average and .636 OPS against Padres pitching, and Nady’s hammy problem makes him a sure go-to target in Petco’s huge right field.

And lastly they ask, why did Tracy stick Bay back into the lineup Sunday to get him ready for the Padres series when his knee is killing him and he has managed just four hits from September 2cd on (.190 batting average).

Playing Bay and Nady while less than 100%, they suggest, means Steven Pearce (.304/.360/.435 in September) and Nate McLouth (.270/.426/.541 in September) have to sit on the pine while Jim Tracy’s second love Nyjer Morgan (.214/.279/.286 in September) plays center.

Do Tracy’s moves, they wonder, have anything to do with his obvious hatred for Dodger management and the fact the Dodgers are two and one-half games behind the Padres in the Wild Card hunt and a sweep or near sweep of the Pirates might eliminate the Dodgers?

That’s the Yin.

The Yang is Pittsburgh Pirates new hire President/CEO Frank Coonelly and his self-professed love for the Philadelphia Phillies who happen to be one and one-half games behind the Padres in the Wild Card hunt.

Phillies fans are also questioning why Coonelly isn’t putting Tracy’s moves on ice so that the Pirates put the most competitive team on the field they can for four games, all things considered. They note Tracy ran with the same lineup for almost two weeks and the Pirates scored more runs than almost any team in baseball. So why is Coonelly agreeing to drastic "look at youthful rotation" changes now?

Bucco Blog believes the integrity of the game requires the Pirates fielding the best nine players every game until the season is over. John Van Benschoten is certainly not one of his best available – at least on paper. Now what adjustments Jim Colborn and JvB have made in the past two weeks is anyone’s guess.

And it was clear in Sunday’s game against the Astros Jason Bay isn’t 75% on his legs. One play in particular required Jack Wilson to go well past medium depth left field to grab a grounder Bay could only hobble toward. And it’s true Nady is far from 100% himself because he allowed balls to fall in Sunday that he normally was able to get to, plus he’s hitting a woeful .143 in September with a 36% strikeout rate.

Perhaps Coonelly is letting Tracy dig his own grave? Perhaps the Pirates want JvB to been showcased in front of the hordes of scouts that are expected at Monday’s game? Perhaps it’s all just a coincidence.

No matter the reason, the controversy exists and the players know they are smack in the middle of it. Unfortunately, that’s not good because, as we know, our roster chokes under pressure.

This will be a very lively series you certainly don’t want to miss.