Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Eulogy for Jack Wilson

One day, when the powers that be are ready to close the book on this horrendous, near-two-decades-long binge of suck, you can bet your sweet ass there's going to be a lot of intense and emotional reflection on the part of the die-hard Pirates fans. As if die-hard Pirates fans weren't already emotionally reflecting on pretty much everything, simply as a result of being die-hard Pirates fans...

Anyway, when that book is closed, this is the guy you'll remember. He wasn't the best player, but that never really mattered. Jack Wilson never failed to justify his place in the lineup.

We heard anecdotes for years about the miserable atmosphere in the Pirates' clubhouse. We heard about Brian Giles and Jason Kendall greeting new players with "welcome to hell." We heard about how those two even went out of their way to give Wilson an especially hard time.

If five years ago, you'd said to anyone even remotely in the know that in 2009, the Pirates would still be awful, they'd almost certainly believe you. But if you'd said that they'd be awful, but with pretty remarkable attitude and character, you'd be laughed out of town quicker than a crackpot mayor lobbying for a baseball-only stadium.

Five, six years ago, everyone here was miserable. Now, though, we're all miserable together. There's an almost tangible sense of unity in this club now: a candlelight vigil for Nate McLouth, players crying upon finding out they've been dealt. And when was the last time you ever heard of statistically average players on a cellar-dwelling team try to collectively bargain their way into staying in town and staying together? You almost never see this with teams, let alone teams this bad.

We all know that players win games, but that executives choose the players. And for all the talk we've heard in the past about creating a "culture of winning," nobody's done more to change the attitude and feel of this club than Jack Wilson. The Pirates are better off now than when he got here, and the only consistent feature over that period of time is him.

He likely won't be here when the club turns the corner and wins that 82nd game or makes the playoffs. But you can be damn sure he'll be paying attention, and that he'll be thrilled as anyone on this board.

I really hope that he returns to Pittsburgh later on in some capacity, or at least winds up an active member of the Pirates' Alumni Association. I look forward to some day down the road when I'll be able to walk up to him at PirateFest or an alumni autograph session, shake his hand and personally thank him for giving us something to be proud of during the very roughest of times.

Best of luck, Jack. We love you, man.

Kwanza for everyone!

And to top off my day, "Steady" Freddy Sanchez is now a Giant.

I don't want you to think I'm a total monster: I love Freddy and I love Jack. (And for a brief while, I even believed in Ian Snell.) However, I fully understand that they're not the future of this club, and that if we're going to go in a direction regarding personnel, we should go there 100%. It's not enough to chip away at this team, one veteran at a time. If the opportunity is there for a complete makeover, we need to take it. The sooner, the better.

This is the opportunity that presented itself from San Francisco:

Tim Alderson
Pitcher, 22nd pick overall in 2007
Age: 20
6'6", 217 lbs
Comparable Pitchers (according to PECOTA's projections): Adam Miller, Nick Adenhart, Shawn Hillegas, Don Schulze, Gaby Hernandez, Sam August, Jerome Williams, Greg Mayberry, Matt Cain, Mike Dowless, Steve Avery, Jeff Russell, Zack Greinke, Roger Salkeld, Randy Knoll, Jimmy Gobble, Pat Strange, Jim Pittsley, Mark Eichhorn, Mark Grant.
Minor League Stats: 3.07 ERA, 1.153 WHIP, 7.3 K/9, 1.8 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9, 8.5 H/9, 3.96 K/BB.

I love Freddy, but at age 31, and at a price tag of $6.25 million, how much upside and value is there?

Just the facts

As you know, nothing gets me more excited than seeing major league talent traded for prospects. Just imagine my buzz when I read that Cliff Lee had been sent to Philadelphia. It was pretty much Christmas morning. Throw in the fact that the Buccos were finally able to dump Jack Wilson and Ian Snell for minor leaguers, and we're talking one of those Christmas-Chanukah fusions that kids with mixed religious heritages get to experience. Total ecstasy.

I'll try containing myself, so as to break this down for you.

Here's what the packages looked like:

Jack Wilson + Ian Snell = Ronny Cedeno + Jeff Clement + Nathan Adcock + Brett Lorin + Aaron Pribanic

Jack Wilson - shortstop, 31-years old, due $7.4 million this year, and over $8 million next (with a buyout just over half a million). Longest tenured Pirate on the roster, pretty much the all-hustle/little-talent veteran leader. Wilson was a fan favorite and had expressed interest in being on the team when they finally make the turn around. Neal Huntington agreed that would be fine, but that in order for that to happen, Wilson would have to take his 2010 salary and spread it over to 2011 as well. Wilson balked at that, Huntington didn't flinch. We all know what happened next.

Ian Snell - starting pitcher, 27-years old, due $3.2 million this year, about the same next. Snell wowed us for a couple months in 2007, showing off a mid-90's fastball, and a wipeout slider that started at the knees and disappeared toward the ground. Then he returned to mediocrity, exceeding his pre-2007 ERA of 4.95 with a post-2007 ERA of 5.40. A couple days after Spinmove and I saw him stink it up earlier this summer, he went on to trash his coaches, claimed to be suicidal, and then asked to be demoted to AAA. Finally Huntington said "Yes, yes, just get out of here and stop being nuts!" Snell returned to AAA, where he spent most of the past two months blowing away kids three to seven years younger than him. When Huntington asked him if he wanted to come back, Snell told him he'd never return to Pittsburgh. Huntington sighed with exasperation, and traded his crazy ass.

Ronny Cedeno - shortstop, 26-years old, due $822,500 this year, free agent at the end of the season. Cedeno stinks. He is absolutely Cesar Izturis, except that-- unlike 2007, when we acquired the 27-year old Izturis from the Cubs-- we're not paying $4.1 million dollars for him (WHICH IS WHAT DAVE LITTLEFIELD ACTUALLY DID FOR 45 GAMES OF CESAR FUCKING IZTURIS OH MY GOD HE WAS SO BAD AT HIS JOB). I guess the other difference is that Cedeno will be a place holder at the shortstop position, whereas Izturis was just kind of a fifth infielder. Anyway, as I said, he stinks. His defense is nothing that we couldn't get from Wilson (I'd go so far as to say it's decidedly inferior to Jack's), and he swings the bat no better than the leather (.616 career OPS, .504 OPS this season). The idea is obviously to let him go after this year, or if he really wants to, let him pay us to play in our low-minors as a former utility prospect. Argenis Diaz, the SS we recently acquired from the Red Sox in the LaRoche deal, will then be in line to battle for the starting position next spring. Should he fail to perform at a major league level, we'll probably go out and find an Adam Everett type who'll sign for a lot less than Jack Wilson's would-be $8 million+.

Jeff Clement - catcher, 25-years old, due chump change. 3rd overall pick in 2005. .286/.374/.497 batting line in the minors. !!!

Nathan Adcock - pitcher, 21-years old, minor leaguer. Sort of a bum pitching in A ball, but he's young and you can never have too many young pitchers in the pipeline.

Brett Lorin - pitcher, age unknown, minor leaguer. Another guy in A ball, but this one strikes out 8.8 per 9 IP, with a 3.4 K/BB. !!!

Aaron Pribanic - pitcher, 23, minor leaguer. Yet another low minors pitcher (the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers and High Desert Mavericks are completely out of arms thanks to this trade); 3.21 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, 54 K, 26 BB, 87 IP this year.

Those are the facts. You do the math.

p.s. Thanks for all the good times, Jack.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tony Bernazard's bad day

Thoughts that came to mind after reading this:
-Awesome, if true.
-This is something I'd watch if it was on television.
-Fight Club vs. Baseball... I think we all know what wins.
-Bucs don't need this kind of thing now, probably could have used it at some point in the last decade.
-When frustrated, I should start taking my shirt off, challenging people to fight me.
-I especially like that this guy was "a scrappy infielder"; means Jack Wilson or David Eckstein may have violent streaks in them.
-Omar Minaya's going to get his ass kicked.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The art of the salary dump

We here at Free Tank Carter are some of the most adamant supporters of the Neal Huntington regime. We take great umbrage to the charge that his maneuvers are nothing more than the work of a cheap, heartless bastard. Believe us, we know cheap, heartless bastards. We know this guy. And this guy. And this guy, this guy, and this guy. Neal Huntington is not a cheap, heartless bastard.

But sometimes he does have to trim some of the fat off the books, because the idiot before him overpaid for a bunch of bums. So yeah, the so called "salary dump" trade happens. And it's fine so long as several conditions are met:
(1) The money saved will be reallocated wisely
(2) The player being dumped won't come back to haunt you
(3) The player being dumped isn't beloved by your fanbase*

*condition (3): not that important; can be thoroughly bypassed if you go on to win a World Series (see: Nomar).

I think Spinmove has sufficiently skullfucked the "McLouth-trade-was-a-salary-dump" camp into submission. And the Morgan/Burnett for Lastings Milledge deal was potentially the biggest grift of this young century, so we're not thinking that was a dump. However, the Adam LaRoche for two minor leaguers was probably, definitely a lightening-of-our-load transaction, and let me tell you why that's okay:

Adam LaRoche is due to make $7,050,000 this season. The Red Sox will be absorbing the pro-rated remainder of that, so we'll be saving around $3 million. Adam LaRoche will be 30 next year, generally the age when batters level off their production and either rev up the roids or enter their decline. There were no plans to re-sign him on account of this fact of nature. We're probably not going to win the division race this year, so there's no reason to spend $3 million just for the sake of spending it.

Okay. All that is obvious. Totally sensible. But the problem is this: Pittsburgh has heard enough apologists and stooges like me, justifying the annual scrapping of talent. We get to late-July and start saying "why spend money if we're just going to keep losing this season??"

That's valid, Pittsburgh. I don't blame your cynicism and general fear of front office authority. Let me try to assuage these doubts by holding this "good" salary dump up to a "bad" salary dump.

The LaRoche deal happened on July 22, 2009-- almost the sixth year anniversary of the Aramis Ramirez deal (7/23/2003). Aramis Ramirez, as you may recall, was going to be our franchise third baseman, but he was making $3 million a year. We also had these guys on the books:
Reggie Sanders- $1,000,000
Kenny Lofton- $1,025,000
Randall Simon- $1,475,000
Brian Boehringer-$1,500,000
Scott Sauerbeck- $1,566,667
Pokey Reese- $2,500,000
Mike Williams- $3,500,000
Kris Benson- $4,300,000
Kevin Young- $6,625,000
Jason Kendall- $8,571,429
Brian Giles- $8,833,333

Naturally, it made sense to send our 25-year old third baseman to the division rival, Chicago Cubs, with Kenny Lofton AND a bag of cash covering their remaining salaries, for Jose Hernandez ($1,000,000) and two bum prospects.

In the previous two years, Jose Hernandez had set and broken his own record for single season strikeouts. Near as I can figure, he had been traded once earlier in 2003, and was still under another team's payroll, so neither the Cubs nor the Pirates had to pay anything for him. The money was entirely tied up in Ramirez and Lofton, and the Pirates were still paying it.

WHY!? you may ask. I think it had something to do with an escalating clause in Ramirez's contract, that we were willing to eat the $3 million if it meant getting him out of town before we'd have to cough up $6 million and then $9 million and then $12 million, etc. Sometimes that's how it has to work. However, we broke one of the cardinal rules of a salary dump: we put him in a position to haunt us.

Because Aramis Ramirez was sent to the Cubs, we've gotten to see him 19 games a year. Since being a Cub, he's hit 180 HRs, with a batting line of .303/.367/.555. Chicago has had no problem treating him as their franchise third baseman, and he's had no problem punishing us, sporting a .966 OPS when playing Pittsburgh.

I wasn't around and can't attest to whether he was a fan favorite or if this trade lost hearts and minds (I assume it did), but I do know the Buccos management broke rule number one, spending the saved money on really stupid shit instead of investing it.

Aramis Ramirez year-by-year salary:
2004 - $6,000,000
2005 - $8,950,000
2006 - $10,750,000
2007 - $9,000,000
2008 - $15,000,000

Some bums we paid, year-by-year salary:
2004 - $6,150,000 (Kris Benson)
2005 - $7,750,000 (Matt Lawton)
2006 - $6 million (Jeromy Burnitz) + $4 million (Joe Randa)
2007 - $10 million pro-rate (Matt FUCKING Morris)
2008 - $10 million (Matt FUCKING Morris)

We had the money. We had the choice. We chose poorly.

Now let's bring this back home.

Adam LaRoche is not going to haunt us. How do I know this? Because he's a late-20's pile of mediocrity that is striking out in the American League East right now, and will be striking out harmlessly somewhere else next year. Even if he comes back to the NL central, there is no chance in the world we'll some day be saying "Oh Big LaPoison...he was the one who got away."

Furthermore, I'm pretty confident that Neal Huntington is going to take the $3 million he's saving right now and invest it in the development side of things. That's been his M.O. these past two seasons, and it's the right one. I've heard it said that Dave Littlefield was going out signing bums to 1-year, multi-million dollar deals so it appeared like he was doing his job, so as to stave off being fired. I don't know if that's true. I don't know if we'll ever understand what was going through his head. The man was unreasonably terrible at things. All I know is that Neal doesn't dump overpaid players just so he can overpay some other guys. That's the trick to this working, that's what makes it exciting: because it's not just more of the same.

p.s. One of the bum prospects he got for LaRoche is this all-glove/no-bat shortstop, which is a thinly-veiled love letter to Jack Wilson's agent, that Neal would like to trim some fat from that contract.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Wednesday Afternoon Update

Have a lot of work I should be doing, which means it's blog-about-sports time.

In football, the big news coming out of our division is that Baltimore has locked up Terrell Suggs for 6 years, while losing Derrick Mason to retirement. Considering that Mason was always a bit more of a Titan than a Raven, and thus classier than most, I'd say this is a net gain in douche-bagginess for the dirty birds.

At age 35, Mason wasn't getting better at his craft, but that's not to say he wasn't a significant part of Baltimore's offensive plans. He put up 1073, 750, 1087, and 1037 receiving yards in four years, and did it in a run-based system. What really underscores his value as the top downfield target, is his teammates' production in that same period. In the three years in which he led the team in receiving yards (2005, 2007, 2008), the runners-up looked like this: 855 (Heap); 531 (Clayton); 695 (Clayton). Mark Clayton will be 27, a former first-round WR selection from 2005. Todd Heap comes into 2009 at age 29, and is a very capable receiving TE. Both of these guys can make the step-up if needed; however, forcing them to do it and forcing Joe Flacco to go into his sophomore year without his most dependable target is still preferable to more Derrick Mason.

Final thought: Ben lost Plax after his rookie season and did okay. I tentatively like comparing Flacco's development to young Ben, but in this case, the 2005 Steelers' receiving corps. strikes me as deeper then, than the 2009 Baltimore unit will be. Hines Ward was proven and in the prime of his career when Burress left; Clayton still needs to establish that.

Okay. There's your football. Let's talk baseball.

Another All-Star Game, another American League win. Feel a little ripped off that it wasn't Duke versus Wakefield pitching the home run derby. Also, wouldn't it have been awesome to see Ian Snell striking out AAA batters in the future's game?

I can't help myself, here. Just glanced at the latest Smizik manifesto. It's a blurb about not blaming the manager. I see several paragraphs, which I assume contain grievances about how much we overpaid Jason Kendall, how the Penguins new arena deal is probably going to fall through, and why trading Kendall was a mistake. Then there's a picture of Jim Leyland. My interest is piqued.

With the Pirates in the midst of a July meltdown -- losers of 11 of their past 14 -- it is not surprising, yet still somewhat mystifying, that in searching for someone to blame fans are pointing fingers at manager John Russell.

Hear that, fans? Bob wants you to shut up and get off John Russell's back! The team is rebuilding and needs your patient, attentive support, not your irrational, misdirected whining.

How many Pirate managerial changes do there have to be before people start realizing the fault lies elsewhere?


Fans seem to forget that all this losing started with Jim Leyland, who is a brilliant manager. After his run of success with three division titles from 1990 to 1992, Leyland had four straight losing seasons. If Leyland couldn’t get this mess turned around, no manager can.

Okay. Who is this, and where's Bob Smizik?

The only way the Pirates are going to become winners is with better players -- not with better managers.

I guess it's still him, except that he's channeling his bitterness into simple, salient points; kind of like we try to do.

I'll fast forward a little, because there really isn't much to annotate. The Smize is stating that managers are only as good as the teams on the field, and that's not always something they can control. Super correct. Now he's going to say something about Jim Tracy. Probably that he's Exhibit A in proving that a manager can, at times, go far out of his way to make a bad team worse.

Do we need to look any further than the success Jim Tracy is having at Colorado to see that the 16 years of losing in Pittsburgh is not a managerial thing.

No, but... sometimes.... look, in that case, Bob, in 2006, it was a managerial thing that really put the kibosh on our already terrible team. Remember Jim Colburn, Tracy's fuckhead pitching coach? Remember how Zach Duke's ERA went from 1.81 to 4.47? That was regressing far past the mean. Remember Chris Duffy, and how Tracy wanted to change his whole approach to the tune of making the kid reconsider whether he should even be in professional baseball? Remember the "wait for the big hit" philosophy? I know these players sucked, but talk about anti-OBP lineups.

The same manager who was fingered as an incompetent in Pittsburgh is a raging success in Colorado.

Incompetent and detrimental + bad team, in Pittsburgh. Probably still an idiot + good team which happens to be getting lucky breaks in droves, in Colorado. Also, Tracy took over mid-season in Colorado. In Pittsburgh he had the offseason to do a lot of stupid shit that made us even worse.

Same with Leyland. After his four straight losing seasons with the Pirates, three of them last-place finishes, he went to Florida and won the World Series in his first season.

This is an obnoxious point to be arguing. Mainly because he's so close to getting it right, but just skims over the specifics. Managers aren't going to turn around teams without talent. They can vaguely hinder or help teams where there's already some talent, and they can retard or nurture teams that are still developing. The Pirates haven't been losing for the last 16 years because of their managers. They've been losing because they lack talent. That means the manager isn't to blame for one overall, general, vague thing; however, he can be blamed or lauded for specific things. Is John Russell getting his players to play hard? Yes. Is John Russell getting his players to play hard enough to overcome a mountain of mediocrity? No. Is John Russell doing as good a job as possible managing his bullpen? Maybe. Is John Russell managing his bullpen to a miraculous 82-80 season? No. Etc.

Hold people accountable for what's actually within their reach. That's all there is to it.

Nope, I'm wrong, there's more to it.

If the Pirates continue to lose, and that’s a pretty good bet, if it makes you feel better, take out your frustrations on Russell. He’s a convenient target. But the manager is not the guy to blame. Jim Leyland and Jim Tracy are proof of that.

This reminds me of one of those carefully worded statements from a neo-nazi group. "Even though the Brotherhood does not condone violence against the Beast-- there is no stopping the people's revolution against their federal oppressors." A subtle stoking of the fire like that.

That's all for this Wednesday Afternoon. Stay black & gold and proud.

Friday, July 10, 2009

All-Star standby

As you may have heard, there's the possibility that our sole representative at the All-Star Game, Freddy Sanchez, won't be a Pirate long enough to actually represent us. I have no idea what MLB will do in this scenario, but it won't go unnoticed. They'll either have Steady Freddy go out on the field wearing a Pirates' hat as his one last salute to Allegheny county, or they'll fly a replacement Buc out to St. Louis at 3am in the morning, and Joe Buck will constantly remind the viewers that this guy is back at the hotel and pseudo-available should Charlie Manuel need him.

For the sake of this entry, let's assume MLB is so married to their policy of every team getting a representative on the roster, that they go with the second option. That means it's a time for deciding: who is that All-Star level replacement Buc (ASLRB)?

After Freddy, Adam LaRoche has been our most productive bat. However, considering that the NL is already taking four first basemen, I kind of doubt there's anything Adam L. can offer that they don't have.
Adam LaRoche- .259/.345/.464, OPS+ 118, 12 HR
Ryan Howard- .253/.332/.522, OPS+ 120, 21 HR
Prince Fielder- .312/.433/.615, OPS+ 175, 22 HR
Adrian Gonzalez- .256/.396/.539, OPS+159, 24 HR
Albert Pujols- .332/.458/.723, OPS+ 210, 31 HR

Yeah, sorry Adam.

I know we'd all love to see Andrew McCutchen's upside validated by a trip to the All-Star Game, but he's sinking like a stone all the way to the middle. What had been a high BAbip, low-ish walk rate, and limited power, is now a reasonable BAbip, low-ish walk rate, and limited power, good for .291/.346/.440. I've seen this kid play, I love him. He is going to be what we dreamed he would be. But right now, it's a stretch to say he's All-Star worthy. Also, he's only played 33 games.

Of the guys who have 250 PAs thus far, only Adam LaRoche and Sanchez have OPS+ above league average. So, what kind of pitching could we bring to the party?

Zach Duke has the best ERA of any of our starters, at 3.28. His 4.5 K/9 is pretty pathetic, and a BAbip of .280 can only contain that 1.22 WHIP for so long. Still, if Tim Wakefield is going to St. Louis with his 4.31 ERA, 1.38 WHIP, and 11 Boston Red Sox wins, I feel like Duke wouldn't be an embarrassing choice. He's not dominant on the same level as some of the other guys who'll be there, and yeah, he has sort of gotten lucky thus far, but he's still not a Mark Redman.
Rocco DeMaro made this point in his mid-season review of the team, and I fully agree with it: there are no star players on the Pirates. Freddy is the closest we have to a star. McCutchen is a star in wait. Saying that Adam LaRoche and Zach Duke are two of our most productive players is indicative of our mediocrity.

That said, star power shouldn't be an immediate concern for this team. The days of importing someone who once was a star, or someone who never was but got paid like a star-- those days are over. Huntington is investing a lot in the development side of things because that's where actual rebuilding takes place. Not on the surface with one or two guys who are great but surrounded by bums.

I miss Jason Bay. I miss feeling like there's A guy who is legit. But how much more fun will it be when all of a sudden there are like four or five guys who are legit? That's coming.

Yours in Christ,

Johnny Q. Optimism