Wednesday, June 30, 2010

What Do You Do With a Bad Team?

So, inspired by Franco's update of the 2008 Pirates and Satchel Price's update of the 2010 Pirates at Beyond the Box Score, I have to admit that I have no specific idea how I would run the Pirates at this point. And I believe that I can say with a fair degree of confidence: neither do you.

Look, for all the crusty columnists and annoyed running pierogies that were frustrated with GM and manager alike keeping their jobs, I haven't heard one solid answer as to what we could do differently.

Price's post was simply on this:

Opening Day Starters:                                         Present Day Starters
C Ryan Doumit                                                   C Ryan Doumit
1B Jeff Clement                                                   1B Garrett Jones
2B Akinori Iwamura                                             2B Neil Walker
3B Andy LaRoche                                               3B Pedro Alvarez
SS Ronny Cedeno                                              SS Bobby Crosby
LF Lastings Milledge                                           LF Jose Tabata
CF Andrew McCutchen                                     CF Andrew McCutchen
RF Garrett Jones                                                RF Lastings Milledge


McCutchen and Doumit, as you can see, are the only ones who have kept their jobs. And one of them is Ryan Doumit.

The players are bad. The 2008 pirates are now led by Jason Bay (a good player, but not the franchise cornerstone some hoped for) and his resounding 1.5 WAR. The players we have now can't even stay in position for a few months. To paraphrase Bill Parcells, we've asked John Russell and Neal Huntington to make meals out of Spam and rhubarb. I am not a Russell fan by ANY stretch, but how is Lastings Milledge his fault? Yes, I know Huntington is supposedly in charge of buying the groceries, but he doesn't have the spending power to run out and buy free agents. All he can do is try and find bargains (e.g. the Pirates former-first-round-picks strategy), rebuild the scouting system (check) and tweak what he's got (check). Two of those three take years to pay off, and the other one doesn't do much.

I just don't understand the protests. I believe you promote and fire people based on the things they can control. If you fire this management, you still have to hire someone else, and unless you have some reason to believe that person is a wizard, he won't suddenly make Pittsburgh the New York media market or make ownership a bunch of big spenders. What more do we want from guys who have to use bad players for the moment?

In the words of Mr. Price "I mean, hey, at least they noticed they weren't too good."

Seriously, if anyone has an actual answer of concrete things you would do differently, I'd love to hear it.

And hey, at least Daniel Moskos might make it to the big leagues by September. Maybe then I can stop drinking away the pain of his draft selection.

Maybe not.

After 18 years, they all look the same

(At Rise: FRANCOfranco's mother's basement. FRANCOfranco is watching Pirates-Cubs on WGN. Lastings Milledge is up.)

(FRANCOfranco's mother walks through with a laundry basket.)


FRANCOFRANCO'S MOTHER
Look, it's the one good player, the one you like!

FRANCOFRANCO
No, Mom...that's just his body double.

(FRANCOfranco's mother watches Milledge swing wildly at something well off the plate. She exits.)

(Milledge pops up to first.)

(The haunting flute motif plays, as the lights fade.)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

World Cup Of American Football Begins

ARLINGTON, TX- Team USA got off to a quick start in Group C of the World Cup of American Football, scoring a decisive 147-0 victory over Cote d'Ivoire, earning 3 points and a potentially crucial point-differential margin.

The Americans got off to a quick start in front of 80,000 partisan fans, as Devin Hester returned the opening kickoff 82-yards for a touchdown. The confused Les Éléphants were seemingly taken by surprise with the ferocity of the American blocking on the return, with several "pancaked" in the midst of attempted handshake greetings.

Les Éléphants had an equally difficult time when they took possession, as a deep American defense led by Dwight Freeney, DeMarcus Ware, Darrelle Revis, and Julius Peppers swarmed the pitch, limiting the African squad to negative 35 yards in total offense.

"It was very difficult playing offense," lamented halfback Saloman Kalou (12 carries, negative 6 yards, 2 fumbles). "I would run with the ball in my hands, and Mr. (Brian) Urlacher or Mr. (James) Harrison would quite viciously throw me to the ground, with little pretense of going for the ball. I was expecting them to receive, at a minimum, a yellow card. But... nothing."

The American offense had more success, though quarterback Peyton Manning (12-13 415 yards, 8 TDs) believes the Americans have plenty of room to improve.

"We played well considering that we only practiced together for a week. But, I'm hoping as the tournament goes on, I'll be able to spread the ball around to more players than just Reggie (Wayne) and Dallas (Clark). There is plenty of room for improvement. Cote d'Ivoire came ready to play, it's never easy out there."

While Manning was working to solidify the normally precise American aerial attack, the team leaned on the running game, enjoying a 150+ pound-per-man advantage across the offensive line. Joe Thomas, Ryan Clady, Logan Mankins, Steve Hutchinson, and Nick Mangold gashed large openings in Les Éléphants defense, as Adrian Peterson (6 carries, 180 yards, 3 TDs) and Chris Johnson (4 carries, 242 yards, 4 TDs) found frequent success.

In addition to a daunting size disadvantage, Les Éléphants were frequently frustrated when their successful slide tackles were flagged for 15-yard tripping penalties.

"I contacted the ball every time," protested linebacker Siaka Tiene.

Injuries and coaching were also problematic for Les Éléphants. Quarterback Didier Drogba, sacked on all four of his passing attempts, left the game at the 3 minute mark of the 2nd quarter with an apparent neck injury after a brutal blind-side hit from blitzing linebacker Patrick Willis. The crowd was muted and solemn as Drogba was taken from the field immobilized on a stretcher. Backup quarterback Kolo Toure remained gravely concerned after the match.

"The stretcher is usually used for injuries such as twisted ankles, but this injury was bad. Very bad. We are very concerned about Didier. I can say emphatically that he was not embellishing his injuries. His family has been notified."

Les Éléphants coach Sven-Goran Eriksson also took much of the blame for the lopsided result.

"I knew going into this match that we would have many physical disadvantages, so I tried to devise a game plan that played to our strengths. It was my hope that we could accumilate many "extra-points" and "field goals", given our kicking skills. However, we were unable to navigate the brutal gauntlet necessary to get within kicking range. Mr. Belicheck and Mr. LeBeau devised a very effective defense."

Les Éléphants also wore down as the game went on, strangely limiting themselves to 3 substitutions, and even playing for a time with only 10 players after Drogba's injury. The Americans, on the other hand, substituted frequently, sometimes bringing in extra linebackers on 3rd down defense, and extra receivers on both of their offensive 2nd downs.

The crowd was enthusiastic throughout, and seemed to especially enjoy the elaborate touchdown celebrations which are forbidden in the American Premiere National Football League (NFL), but are permitted in the World Cup. Chad Ochocinco, Terrell Owens, and Maurice Jones-Drew performed an elaborately orchestrated tea party after a second quarter touchdown. Owens and Ochocinco also performed R. Kelly's hit single "Ignition" after Owens' 46-yard catch-and-run touchdown in the 3rd quarter. www.youtube.com/watch?v=-MJYZLjc8JQ

The running clock spared Les Éléphants further attrition in the second half. They must play South Korea in only 6 days, with only a handful of healthy players remaining.

The Americans will clash with Paraguay next Saturday.

"I told the guys we'll enjoy this game tonight and tomorrow," Belicheck told the media after the game, "but we're back to work on Tuesday morning to prepare for Paraguay."

Monday, June 21, 2010

Your 2008 Pittsburgh Pirates in 2010

Nate McLouth - 205 PA, -0.7 WAR
Jason Bay - 268 PA, 1.4 WAR
Adam LaRoche - 260 PA, -0.1 WAR
Xavier Nady - 118 PA, -0.5 WAR
Ronny Paulino - 185 PA, 0.7 WAR
Jack Wilson - 83 PA, 0.1 WAR
Freddy Sanchez - 116 PA, 1.0 WAR
Nyjer Morgan - 268 PA, -1.6 WAR
Jose Bautista - 276 PA, 1.4 WAR
Ian Snell - 46.1 IP, -1.0 WAR
Tom Gorzelanny - 54.1 IP, 0.8 WAR
John Grabow - 23.1 IP, -1.0 WAR
Sean Burnett - 23.0 IP, 0.4 WAR
Damaso Marte - 12.1 IP, 0.2 WAR
Jesse Chavez - 23.1 IP, -0.5 WAR
Matt Capps - 31.1 IP, -0.1 WAR

And just for the sake of reference, Jose Bautista's HR% has gone from 6.6% last Tuesday to 6.3% as of today. We'll keep tabs on that.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

In my best Tim Kurkjian voice

I went to the Pirates-ChiSox game tonight with two friends because I wanted to be there the night Pedro Alvarez played in his first big league game. I figured that if I was lucky, I'd see him hit his first home run, or at least his first hit. I wasn't really expecting any of that -- really, I'm just satisfied that he wasn't in a car accident on the way to the ballpark and that he made it through batting practice without tearing a hamstring or breaking both his legs. The goal was just to see him play. Mission accomplished.

Sitting there in right-center, I realized something pretty exciting. There'd been a lot of talk and a lot written since last night about how the Pirates' future effectively began today. The future is now. That sounds great and all, but what ultimately sunk in wasn't just that I was watching Alvarez and Jose Tabata for the first time, or that I got to see Neil Walker and Andrew McCutchen as I have before. It was that these guys were all in one place at the same time -- that tonight, the Pirates fielded their best lineup in 13 years, and their most talented lineup in 20 years.

Think about that. Wednesday night's lineup had more upside in it than the average Pirates lineup did two full years before the losing started. Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and last night's starter, Brad Lincoln, are all homegrown former first-rounders. Jose Tabata is a legitimate, major-league quality talent, whatever his real age may be. These guys were all on the field at the same time last night. It literally gave me chills when I realized this.
Of course, it could all go horribly wrong. In fact, this club has a track record of things going horribly wrong. But there's a chance that it won't. And if it doesn't, maybe -- just maybe -- I'll be able to say I was there the night it all started.

And years from now I'll tell my children and grandchildren -- or someone else's children or grandchildren, or really, just anyone who happens to pass within an earshot the park bench where I imagine I'll spend most of my time -- of that magical night back in the summer of 2010; that night on which I looked into the future.

I'll tell them that I saw Pedro Alvarez majestically strike out swinging on a 91-mile-per-hour John Danks fastball. I'll tell them about watching Pedro's courageous plate discipline, fouling off a 3-1 pitch down in the zone before taking a pitch nineteen yards outside the strike zone for the first walk of his career. And I'll tell them about that infuriatingly hilarious 9th inning.

In fact, why wait? I'm going to tell you about that infuriatingly hilarious ninth inning.

With the Bucs down 5-2 in the top of the ninth, Brendan Donnelly came on in relief of Evan Meek. Jayson Nix (brother of Reds outfielder Laynce Nix, who used to date Jason Bay's sister, and whose parents have some crazy thing about including unnecessary y's in their children's names) doubled to left. Andruw Jones, pinch hitting, popped out to second base. One out, man on second. Enter Juan Pierre. If the Pirates can make Russ Ortiz look like Cy Young, they sure as hell can turn Juan Pierre into Ty Cobb. Ain't no thing. I'm going to let Dejan tell this because there's just no way I can do it justice:

Chicago had a 5-2 lead entering that ninth and, with White Sox's Jayson Nix on second and Brendan Donnelly pitching, second baseman Neil Walker, who has been solid defensively, failed to scoop up Juan Pierre’s roller.

E-4.

Pierre stole second, and Doumit’s low attempt to get him bounced into center field to allow Nix to score.

I just feel compelled to add here that Ryan Doumit sucks.

E-2.

After a second out, Alex Rios walked and, on ball four, Pierre bolted for third. Doumit’s throw went off Alvarez's glove and into shallow left, allowing Pierre to score.

E-5.

"I really suck, and that was totally my fault. But later on, I'm going to pretend that the shitty throw was just my way of hazing the rookie and getting him his first error." - Ryan Doumit, as he exists in my head

Shortstop Bobby Crosby, who earlier botched a routine bouncer, collected that ball in left and sailed his throw home to the backstop.

E-6.

Juan Pierre basically did everything you're not supposed to do in order to be good at baseball, and he wound up still scoring an insurance run for his team. And in the process, he got credit for two stolen bases, neither of which were seriously contested defensively. After reaching on an error, he advanced on what was ostensibly an error, then advanced again on what was ostensibly another error. Then, he scored on an error. Then, the Pirates tacked on another error before the play ended, just for good measure.

And yet, I'm sure someone out there watching this game -- someone named Ozzie Guillen or Joe Morgan or one of that crowd -- would insist up and down:

LOOK AT JUAN PIERRE, OUT THERE CREATING THAT RUN ALL BY HIMSELF. YOU TALK ABOUT WHAT YOU WANT OUT OF YOUR LEADOFF GUY, YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT SPEED AND YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT QUICKNESS AND SMART BASERUNNING. THAT'S WHAT JUAN PIERRE BRINGS TO THE TABLE, AND THAT'S WHY HE'S THE BEST LEADOFF HITTER IN...

After this unfolded, my friend said that the worst part about this inning was that it validated Ozzie Guillen's worldview. Juan Pierre, making things happen by...stretching that defense or spreading the field, or whatever totally not real bullshit Juan Pierre does that makes Ozzie Guillen think he's an acceptable baseball player. Comical, sad.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

How to save your job if you're a GM: make a move

Like trading for Matt Morris? Let's not go there.

But let's indeed go here.

If I'm Pirates general manager Neal Huntington, I'm promoting hotshot prospect Pedro Alvarez from the minors today, putting him in the lineup at third base tonight against the Chicago White Sox at PNC Park and praying like crazy he does something to help me save my job. Next month might be too late. Heck, next week could be too late.

Things Neal Huntington isn't on: the hotseat.

Huntington has to be running out of time. He's in the final season of a three-year contract and management has given no indication it plans on extending him. There's a good reason for that. Overall, he hasn't done a very good job.


I will eat this blog if the front office lets Huntington go after this year. The bottom line is that he's done a fantastic job gutting all the overpaid, mediocre parts from the top level club, and restocking the minors so that in the next two years, we can have legit talent in the majors.

Huntington can pat himself on the back for rebuilding the Pirates' minor league system, through the draft if nothing else.

Wait, let's go back.

Overall, he hasn't done a very good job.

Then:

Huntington can pat himself on the back for rebuilding the Pirates' minor league system, through the draft if nothing else.

Rebuilding a farm system is such a huge fucking accomplishment, and like the only thing that can be expected to happen before a small market, low payroll team can compete. It is ridiculous to say that Huntington isn't very good AND that he's rebuilt the farm system in two consecutive sentences.

It's not so much that he and his scouts picked Alvarez No. 2 in the 2008 draft. That was a no-brainer. What's more impressive is that baseball people have praised the Pirates' overall drafts under Huntington. Good for him and his people.

But what about the big league club?

RON COOK'S WIFE: Ron! Great news! I'm pregnant!!
RON COOK: Good for you and your people. But what about the baby? That still isn't born yet, now is it?

While Huntington has been off overseeing the minor leaguers, it has become a joke, even worse than when he took over from previous general manager Dave Littlefield.


In some ways this is the least talented first-half roster we've seen in a while. That one week of hell against Milwaukee was legendary. But all this said, I'm feeling pretty excited about my Bucs. Yeah, they're largely terrible, but we're looking at an emerging talent core of Cutch, Walker, Tabata, Lincoln, and Alvarez, which will hopefully all be settled in by this year's All-Star break. That core is cost controlled, young and the kind of foundation that you can build around. So what do you want? A lot of bums and some exciting question marks, or a lot of bums and some overpaid bums like Joe Randa, Sean Casey, Jeromy Burnitz, Matt Lawton, Jason Kendell, Matt Morris, Kip Wells, Mark Redman, Jose Mesa...

The proof is the eight-game losing streak and 23-40 record the Pirates will take into the game tonight. Only the woeful Baltimore Orioles are worse. It's hard to remember a worse Pirates lineup, the pitching is the second worst in baseball and the defense significantly has worsened.

Other than that, everything is just great.


As sports fans, we never root for our team to lose. However, we also never root for them to be mediocre. I am confident that we can stay at that .400 winning percentage indefinitely, just as I'm confident that we can't surpass that .500 mark without taking a few steps back. All the house cleaning and purges serve a purpose.

Huntington has to take the blame for this mess.

Littlefield had us up to a .420 winning percentage in his last year. How dare Huntington come in and wreck that?

His trades have been mostly failures, although it's still too soon to pronounce final judgment on some. The Xavier Nady-Damaso Marte deal, which brought Jose Tabata, Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Daniel McCutchen, was a really good one. But the rest? At least to this point, they range from bad to awful.

Nady is chronically injured/mediocre. Damaso Marte is just terrible. Tabata is a future stud. Ohlendorf is a steady starter. Karstens is a less steady starter. McCutchen is a minor league project at best.

Just getting Nady and Marte out of town and taking a top prospect would have been enough, but Huntington made a point of shoring up our AAAA pitching so he could have flexibility in future deals. This shows the kind of intelligence and long term strategy that we Pirates fans aren't used to, coming from the front office.

Glad Ron Cook approves.

Robinson Diaz for Jose Bautista, who had 18 home runs through Sunday for the Toronto Blue Jays?

If you're proposing that Jose Bautista had done ANYTHING to recommend that he not be moved, you're fucking nuts. Jose Bautista's time with us was the very definition of suck. He was happy to hit .245, wasn't even close to a league average OPS, and happened to be terrible in the field. He had a -1.1 WAR in his time spent in Pittsburgh, which means had we given his playing time to a minor leaguer, we would have lost one less theoretical game than we did.

The fact that at age 29, he's doubled his HR rate of 3.3% to a whopping 6.6% is simply nonsense. It is the kind of thing that occasionally happens with bum players and does not last long. Remember Chris Shelton? He was this ugly bum that Littlefield forgot to protect in the Rule-5 Draft, and Detroit took him. In 2006 he hit 10 HRs in the first month of the season, and everyone was predicting he'd cure cancer by the All-Star break. He ended the season with a total of 16 dingers and a lot of disappointed kids in his wake.

If you really want to talk about utility bums that got away, look at Ty Wigginton. He is NOT very valuable, but he's consistently more valuable that Jose Bautista or Chris Shelton. And he was also leading the AL in HRs earlier this season. Guess what he's no longer doing.

Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Bryan Morris and Craig Hansen for Jason Bay?

Bryan Morris is blowing through AA right now. He was the centerpiece of the deal. All credible intelligence pointed to LaRoche being a top flight third baseman. That was obviously wrong. Moss and Hansen were considered interesting projects. They're not. Jason Bay was going one way or the other. Neal did what he had to do. Bay will now die a slow, miserable death in Citi Field, while Morris will come up in the next big infusion of talent, circa 2011.

Bad as those deals were, sending Jack Wilson and $3.3 million to Seattle to get Jeff Clement as the key acquisition was worse. Clement was given the first-base job in the spring and hit .189 before being sent, finally, to the minors Wednesday.

Jeff Clement was never the key acquisition of anything. His own mother invites him over for Thanksgiving dinner because she wants to spend time with his wife. Jeff Clement is a bum with potential that we gave some PAs to because we can afford to try guys out.

The deal that sent Jack Wilson AND Ian Snell out of here is perfectly fine. Yeah, we passed along some cash, but paying $3 million for Jack Wilson to be injured and Snell to be terrible in Seattle while getting FOUR new prospects in our minors is a lot cheaper than paying $9.5 million to have Wilson be injured and Snell be terrible in Pittsburgh.

Then, there was the Aki Iwamura fiasco. Huntington traded to get him in the offseason when the Tampa Bay Rays were ready to release him and took on his $4.85 million salary, which is highest on the Pirates.

Conjecture that he was about to be released. Total, random conjecture.

Iwamura is hitting .177 and has no range in the field because of a bad knee.

This one didn't work out. I have no problem admitting it. But the plan was sound. We'd trade nothing to get something, then trade that something to get some prospects at the deadline and not be on the hook for the bill. Turns out Aki is not something at all, but rather just terrible and injured. We eat the loss and move, happy that we haven't made any long-term mistakes.

If you count Iwamura's salary with the money the Pirates sent to Seattle for Clement and the $2 million the team ate to release Ramon Vazquez in the spring, that's more than $10 million wasted dollars for a franchise that can't afford it.

Just think, Littlefield could have used that money on a Matt Morris and everything would have been great!

Shame on Huntington.

No. No! Shame on you, Ron Cook. Shame on the Post-Gazette. This is lazy, anger-mongering designed to sell paper, all while disguised as journalism. I'm not even asking you to do some research on what you're writing about; I'm just asking that you use a little critical sense before publishing. Suggesting that Huntington's job is in danger and that HE is the reason we're so fucked up as a franchise, that's simply an irresponsible use of your soapbox. Shame on you, trying to rile up the people of this city for all the wrong reasons.

One final blunder by Huntington:

Not signing highly touted Dominican Republic shortstop Miguel Sano was a huge one. People loved this kid. He badly wanted to play for the Pirates. Huntington couldn't get it done, losing him to the Minnesota Twins over a few hundred-thousand dollars.


The Sano signing was the biggest punch to the gut that Neal Huntington has taken. It was not a matter of the Pirates being cheap, it was actually Sano's agent using us to drive up the price, with no actual intent to sign here. Sucks.

In many ways, the Pirates' season is over again, long before the Fourth of July. But wouldn't it be fun to see what Alvarez could do with future star Andrew McCutchen and the other young guys that Huntington has finally, seemingly reluctantly, brought up? Tabata. Neil Walker. Brad Lincoln. Steve Pearce once he is healthy again. Who knows? Maybe they could put a little something good together. Maybe they could save Huntington's job.

I guarantee two things:
1) Neal Huntington's job is not in danger.
2) Pedro Alvarez could not save it if it was.

The maximum contribution you can expect from half a season of an elite player is what? About 3 more wins than you'd get if you kept playing a bum? That's about what we got from the legendary second-half performance of rookie Zach Duke (3.1 WAR to be exact). We project to lose SO many games this year, that 3 more wins will not be noticed.

I don't mean to undersell what Alvarez could mean to us in future campaigns: indeed, his full season value in the perfect world will be 7 to 10 more wins a year than we'd get with the usual crap. That, combined with the other blue chip prospects Neal Huntington has assembled will add up and make the difference.

Patience everyone. Patience.

If I'm Huntington, I'm willing to take that chance. Apparently, he isn't to that point yet. What? Is he afraid Alvarez will fail? If that happens, he almost surely will be fired.

Know what Dave Littlefield apparently wasn't afraid of? That Matt Morris might fail.

That's a terrible way to generally manage, isn't it?

Littlefield, yes. Huntington, no.

If I'm Huntington, I'm going down firing all the bullets in my gun. I'm not leaving any in the chamber in Indianapolis.

If I'm me, a fan of the Pirates, I'm going to hope our GM does what he thinks is prudent for the long run, so that we never have to go through another two decades of pigshit again.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Chip Brown, ESPN and journalism for the critically lazy

My dear friend and mentor Cory Giger, who writes for the Altoona Mirror and hosts his own talk show on ESPN Radio in the State College/Altoona market, raised a really great question this evening:

"Surely you've heard the name Chip Brown. He's the guy breaking news for Orangebloods.com, a Texas Rivals site, and appearing on ESPN. Given that Big 12 is still alive, did he really break anything? Seems like he was wrong from get-go. His sources were probably high up ...in Texas administration, and he reported what they told him, which probably suited their needs."

Don't be fooled -- this is really two questions masquerading as just one. For the sake of being orderly, we'll address the literal question first: did Chip Brown break news?

It's not outrageous to suggest that the most comparable situation to this we've seen in recent memory occurred in 2007, when the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review erroneously reported on its front page that the Steelers had picked Russ Grimm to succeed Bill Cowher. The Trib was clearly wrong about this, but the paper stood by its reporting, even after it became clear that the job belonged to Mike Tomlin. In the weeks that followed, fragmentary details trickled out indicating that Grimm's belief that he'd been offered the job, though the Steelers vehemently denied ever making an offer.

We'll probably never know what really happened between the Steelers, the Trib and Russ Grimm. The same probably isn't true of this whole Big 12 fiasco. As the next college football season nears, it's a good bet that you'll see Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe, Texas head football coach Mack Brown or one of the few remaining conference bigwigs sit down across a desk from Bob Ley or Kirk Herbstreit and discuss what happened.

Given that Colorado bolted to the Pac-10 before anyone knew conclusively that the Big 12 wasn't going to fade into Bolivian, I'm inclined to believe that Brown probably had the story right at the time, and that the entire thing simply shifted underneath him after he'd already stuck out his neck. By the same token, it's also entirely possible that Brown's sources were totally manipulating the story to achieve a certain desired outcome, but Brown can hardly be held accountable for that.

In 1964, Ben Bradlee, the greatest newspaperman of the 20th century, was working a story for Newsweek about Lyndon Johnson searching for a new FBI director to replace J. Edgar Hoover. Bradlee sat on the story for months, waiting for some indication that Johnson was going to make a move. Finally, Bradlee got a tip from LBJ special assistant Bill Moyers that a change in the FBI leadership was imminent. Bradlee ran the story, and, as expected, the White House denied it. Later that week, LBJ held a press conference in the White House Rose Garden, naming Hoover FBI director for life. Moments before the press conference, LBJ turned to Moyers and said, "Tell your friend Ben Bradlee 'Fuck you.'"

Did Bradlee screw up? Yeah. Was he wrong? Not in the least.

Did the Trib break news, even though it wound up being wrong? What about Bradlee? It's really hard to judge from the outside looking in. But I'd give Brown the benefit of the doubt. This kind of thing happens in journalism; what's fact one day might be outdated the next, especially when there's major money involved. And college athletic administrators will always lie to reporters if it means taking control of a story and a situation upon which rests an industry worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

This is only half of the issue, though, because there's actually a very important subtext in play here, and it concerns the question of new media versus established media.

As someone who studied and worked in sports journalism for a number of years, I'm fascinated by the way the industry continues to evolve, especially with respect to how people get their sports news. I was watching the 5 p.m. SportsCenter the other night when Jay Harris led off the show by interviewing this Chip Brown fellow, and the segment blew me away. On live television, at the very top of the sports equivalent of the evening news, Brown appeared on ESPN via telephone and reported that Nebraska was leaving the Big 12 to join the Big Ten. He didn't stop there. After discussing this story in depth for less than two minutes, Brown added that he had even more breaking news, and reported that six of the Big 12's remaining teams would jump to the Pac-10, and that the Big 12 would cease to exist in a matter of days.

On a certain level, this shocked me -- some blogger ostensibly hijacked a live national television broadcast, and was talking way ahead of any prepared graphics, B-roll or knowledge of anyone at ESPN. As this happened, the only thing I could think was that Chip Brown had just set off the latest skirmish in the ongoing war between new and old media.

Just for background's sake, there have been lukewarm hostilities going on the past few years between the established media and the new media, and it's gotten pretty heated on a number of occasions. The most notable of these occurred when author Buzz Bissinger savagely attacked Deadspin founder Will Leitch on an episode of HBO's "Costas Now," while Braylon Edwards looked on in befuddlement. I've long been a proponent of the idea that blogosphere is very important, in that it provides a much-needed check on an industry full of dead wood writers who aren't capable of relating to their readership at all (see: Fire Joe Morgan). But a lot of the better sports blogs thrive on the quality of their speculation, gossip and commentary, not the quality of their reporting.

This isn't true across the board. Yahoo's sports coverage, which is Internet-centric, is outstanding and breaks stories regularly. Sports reporting blog networks like Scout and Rivals, which operate by enlisting local writers in various markets to generate premium content, do a lot of solid reporting. Scout.com's Steelers coverage -- hosted on Steel City Insider -- is done masterfully by Pittsburgh writer Jim Wexell, but the quality of the coverage varies from market to market and sport to sport. Purchasing a Scout.com account gets you great Steelers coverage, but the Penguins, Pirates and Pitt coverage on the network isn't worth reading, let alone paying for. OrangeBloods is the Rivals.com affiliate for University of Texas coverage. I don't read OrangeBloods, and I can't speak to the quality of Chip Brown's work.

However, I think the reason Brown's chops as a reporter are being called into question here has less to do with the story panning out the way he initially reported it than it does with the fact that he works for a web-based news gathering organization. There's a common and infectious attitude of uncertainty, especially among members of the traditional media, as to how we're supposed to treat the information we get from non-traditional news sources.

This is totally understandable. In his skimming of the sports section, your average newspaper reader does not distinguish a game story from a sidebar or a notebook from a column; to him, everything he reads in the newspaper is simply "an article." Similarly, we are still at a point with digital media where reporting isn't distinguished from commentary. This is why Buzz Bissinger was so outrageously wrong. It's also why the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan -- who has said that he reads blogs like Deadspin, and that there must be a harmony between the new and the established media -- is the most right of any nationally-known sports writer I've heard speak on the topic.

Blog is a four-letter word to a lot of traditionalists, and this is because they simply don't take the time to parse news from entertainment or good information from bad. In the education world, this concept is called information literacy, and it's the difference between writing an entire term paper with things you find on Wikipedia versus using resources like databases and the library.

Finally...whether or not Brown broke any news here, and whether or not he was right, it's worth pointing out here that the degree to which ESPN piggybacks on the hard work of real journalists is utterly shameful. It's been quite a while since anyone at ESPN broke any news, but unfortunately, not too long since the last time someone at ESPN took something that someone else wrote and claimed it as their own.

It's been at least a decade since ESPN permanently broke the cardinal sin of putting making the news ahead of reporting the news. ESPN gave up reporting years ago in favor of turning itself into a brand that makes money off people the same way professional sports do. With that in mind, FTC offers a simple word of advice to anyone who cares about sports enough to read about sports: diversify your sources of news and commentary. Read blogs. Read your local newspaper in print or online. For the best coverage of sports outside your area, get online and read other areas' local newspapers. Quit basking in the glitz and gimmick of the faux analysis, the rampant cross-promotion, the money-driven, image-conscious self-censorship and Stu Scott's hypnotic robo-eye. You can do better. You will do better.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

I think we're going to need some bigger bats

Things we learned tonight:
  • Stephen Strasburg is at least as good against the Pirates as Russ Ortiz.
  • Stephen Strasburg's curveball breaks across five dimensions.
  • A Stephen Strasburg fastball can exit a human skull at the speed of sound.
  • Stephen Strasburg's slider went back in time, shattered Governor Connally's right wrist, then turned left twice and exploded the President's head.
  • After Strasburg recorded his 12th strikeout, Cubs advance scout Dave Littlefield called Nationals GM Mike Rizzo to say he was now open to the possibility of dealing Kip Wells in a straight up trade, and he had but one player in mind.
  • Delwyn Young cares not for your $15 million guaranteed contract.
  • Stephen Strasburg's changeup can travel at up to four different speeds simultaneously.
  • Later this season, Stephen Strasburg will trigger an obscure clause in his contract allowing him to become a free agent after pitching a perfect game in which he never throws the same pitch twice, instead creating new pitches for each delivery.
  • The New York Times will break with its sports style guide and refer to Stephen Strasburg as "Mr. Stephen Strasburg" on every reference.
  • After watching four innings of Strasburg's debut on tape, New York Mets third baseman David Wright called the commissioner's office to concede all of his future career at-batsagainst Strasburg as strikeouts as a means of expediting play.
  • Jeff Karstens looks even more like a member of the British Royal family when he steps in to hit against Stephen Strasburg.

I'm not that far away from being a ballplayer

Monday, June 7, 2010

Remembrances of failures past, part II

Yeah, I lied about posting this stuff over the weekend. So what? I don't owe you people anything.

1997 - J.J. Davis, 1B, Baldwin Park HS - Baldwin Park, CA (8th)
Sweet Christ, was this a terrible pick. Davis only really played for the Pirates in the majors because of the time and money they invested in him. He took longer than he should have to progress through the system, and his minor league numbers were on the pedestrian side of decent. During three call ups to Pittsburgh ('02, '03, '04), Davis hit a combined .163/.236/.213, and an OPS+ of 18. If you're scoring at home, you know that really sucks. What sucks even more is that be it for reasons of talent or signability, had Davis ranked higher on their draft board than 1B/OF Lance Berkman, who went eight picks later.

1998 - Clint Johnson, LHP, Vanderbilt University (15th)
Where Davis was probably a reach, taken more because he'd cost the team less money to sign than a superior talent, Johnson was definitely a reach, as he wasn't even projected to be drafted in the top two rounds -- at least, not as a pitcher. Most teams that scouted Johnson were more intrigued with his potential as a first baseman or corner outfielder than as a pitcher. Johnson was an abject failure as a pitcher in the Pirates' system, never making it above High-A. When the Pirates cut Johnson in 2001, he caught on with Toronto and began transitioning to first base. He put up decent numbers playing in High-A and Double-A, but by then he was far too old to be considered anything more than a serviceable minor league player, let alone a prospect. In 2008, then age 30, Johnson OPS'd .849 for Southern Maryland of the independent Atlantic League in his first season as a full-time player in four years. He has been out of baseball since.

1999 - Bobby Bradley, RHP, Wellington Community HS - Wellington, FL (8th)
Three years in the low minors, strikeouts, control problems. Tommy John in '02. Three more years in the minors, including a cup of coffee in Triple-A, by which time he'd fallen out of favor with the organization. Bradley now plays poker professionally and golf on the side.

2000 - Sean Burnett, LHP, Wellington Community HS - Wellington, FL (19th)
There was a story floating around that Burnett was drafted, at least partially, on the advice of his high school teammate Bradley. That's not a stellar way to go about running your baseball operations, but it's surely not to blame for Burnett's struggles. Objectively, Burnett was a bust. He never had the velocity to be a top-of-the-rotation guy, but his command and poise were always well ahead of his age, and his work ethic was stellar. I'll admit, I'm biased here. I covered Burnett in Double-A, and I really grew to like the guy. He's personable, he's cool, he's collected and he's got a sort of understated swagger about him. I really wanted Burnett to make it, and I was pretty upset when the Pirates traded him. Not as upset as he was, but still pretty upset. The guy was and continues to be a bulldog on the mound.

2001 - John Van Benschoten, RHP, Kent State University (8th)
Not a lot of luck with that eighth pick, eh? Van Benschoten (known to his teammates as "Scooter") was a slugging first baseman who hit all the home runs while playing at Kent State. He also moonlighted as his team's closer -- a role he was pretty effective in. So naturally, the Pirates drafted him and made him a starting pitcher. Average in hte minor leagues. Tommy John in '05. Flat-out awful in the majors. Van Benschoten holds the distinction of having the highest ERA in MLB history of any pitcher to have thrown at least 75 innings. Now, at age 30, he is currently on the minor league disabled list with the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre Yankees, Triple-A affiliate of the New York Yankees.

2002 - Bryan Bullington, RHP, Ball State University (1st)
/ANGRYANGRYANGRYANGRYANGRYANGRYSMASSSSH
When Dave Littlefield drafted Bryan Bullington, he said that the club had Bullington pegged as a fourth starter in a five man rotation, ideally, which is a great way to burn the first overall pick and the signing bonus that goes with it. Here is a brief list of players drafted after Bullington who have had more productive careers: B.J. Upton, Zach Greinke, Prince Fielder, Jeff Francis, Joe Saunders, Khalil Greene, Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels, James Loney, Denard Span, Jeremy Guthrie, Jeff Francoeur, Joe Blanton, Matt Cain. Here are a few names taken in the second round, after the Pirates adeptly nabbed high school pitcher Blair Johnson that year: Joey Votto, Micah Owings, Dave Bush, Jon Lester, Jonathan Broxton, Brian McCann, Fred Lewis.

2003 - Paul Maholm, LHP, Mississippi State University (8th)
There are conflicting theories as to what caused Dave Littlefield to inadvertently select a decent player. One says that he was double-crossed by scouting director Mickey White. Another says that Littlefield tried to draft Hall-of-Famer Napoleon Lajoie, and the league office, stricken with pity for Littlefield's lack of competence, simply drafted Maholm for him. We may never know. But Paul Maholm is the only one of the first-round arms in this group to 1) stick with the major league team for any length of time, and 2) make it to the majors without having Tommy John. These two things will surely help the Pirates command a fine price for Maholm when they start shopping in the next three to five weeks.

2004 - Neil Walker, C, Pine Richland HS - Pittsburgh, PA (11th)
The Pirates weren't going to take Jered Weaver because of signability issues, and the sentimentality factor of drafting the hometown kid definitely played into this pick. It really wound up not mattering too much from a baseball standpoint because pretty much everyone who went in the first round in '04 was awful (except for Weaver, Justin Verlander and Houston Street). The drafting of Neil Walker made for a nice little piece of good PR, which the club dearly needed at the time, and it's turned into a nice little piece of PR in the last two weeks with Walker taking over as the starting second baseman and entrenching himself in the two-spot of the order. No telling how long he'll last, but his plate discipline, defensive versatility and the lack of middle infield depth in the Pirates' system should be enough to give Walker a more than fair chance to stick with the Bucs for at least a few years.

2005 - Andrew McCutchen, OF, Fort Meade HS - Fort Meade, FL (11th)
I guess it's harder to miss when you're dealing with a deep pool of talent in the draft, but that never seemed to stop the Pirates from missing before. In 2005, they didn't miss. Five years later, this kid, who was compared to Mike Cameron, now looks like one of the game's most promising young players. He's also the only guy currently on the roster worth paying to see.

2006 - Brad Lincoln, RHP, University of Houston (4th)
Pirates War Room, June 6, 2006
Doug Strange: Well, Dave, we're up! You've heard from all the scouts, you have all our notes and projections. Who's it gonna be?
Dave Littlefield: Hmm. Lots of numbers on page!
/closes eyes, waves index finger at spreadsheet
/points
Dave Littlefield: We'll take Tim...Lin...Linkay...Linkeycume? Linkucumm...Fuck it. Give me Brad Lincoln.
Strange: Sounds great! I'll get him on the phone.
/rings
Brad Lincoln: Hello?
Dave Littlefield: Brad Lineupcum? Am I speaking with Brad?
Brad Lincoln: This is Brad Lincoln.
Dave Littlefield: Tim, This is Red Leader. I've got some great news for you. We are about to make you a Pittsburgh Pirates.
Brad Lincoln: That is terrible news. I won't sign for less than $2 million.
Dave Littlefield: How about $3 million?
Brad Lincoln: Deal!
Dave Littlefield: Now, we're going to have a mini-camp at our facility in Bradenton on the twenty-
Brad Lincoln: Coach, can I call you back? I'm kind of in the middle of something.
/has Tommy John surgery.

2007 - Daniel Moskos, LHP, Clemson University (4th)
Littlefield did not want to pay the best player on the board, Matt Wieters, any money. In fact, he was afraid of even negotiating with Wieters, who is represented by Scott Boras. So instead, he drafted closer prospect Danny Moskos. FTC covered this extensively at the time. When Neal Huntington took over this disaster of an organization, he made Moskos a starter. That was an even bigger failure than Moskos as a reliever, so now he's back to closing. Currently in his second full year with Double-A Altoona, Moskos has a 1.42 ERA, a 1.026 WHIP, a 26:8 K:BB ratio and 13 saves in 25.1 innings of work.

2008 - Pedro Alvarez, 3B, Vanderbilt University (2nd)
His bat is for real. So is his ability to eat his weight in cheeseburgers. The next Miguel Cabrera? Stay tuned.

2009 - Tony Sanchez, C, Boston College (4th)
In Sanchez, the Pirates saw a cheap option in a weak draft, and they loved his intangibles. Huntington took a lot of flack for supposedly reaching for Sanchez, but through parts of two minor league seasons, all the kid has done is hit: .314/.416/.500. Currently hitting .318/.423/.460 for High-A Bradenton.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Remembrances of failures past, Part I

Baseball's June entry draft starts Monday, and -- you're never going to believe this -- the Pirates have the second overall pick!

I know, right? I was stoked, too.

It's with this in mind that we're going to revisit the careers and whereabouts of all the Pirates' first-round draft picks since the team selected Barry Bonds sixth overall in the 1985 draft, TWENTY-FIVE YEARS AGO. We'll review 1986-1996 on Friday, 1997-2002 on Saturday and 2003-2009 on Sunday.

1986 - Jeff King, SS, University of Arkansas (1st overall)
As first-round picks go, Jeff King was a pretty good one, in that he turned out to be a serviceable major league player. Mostly manning the corner infield spots, he played 11 seasons in the bigs, his best coming in 1996, when he put up .271/.346/.497, with an OPS+ of 116, making him about 8% better than the average big league hitter. Following that year, the Bucs dealt King to Kansas City along with Jay Bell for Joe Randa. Drafted immediately behind King were Greg Swindell, Matt Williams, Kevin Brown, Kent Mercker and Gary Sheffield.

1987 - Mark Merchant, OF, Oviedo HS - Oviedo, FL (2nd)
Since the June draft was started in 1965, only four players picked second overall have failed to make the majors (I'm excluding Mike Moustakas, Pedro Alvarez and Dustin Ackley, the three most recent second overall picks). Mark Merchant holds the distinction of being one of those guys, having topped out at Triple-A. Merchant floundered about the minors for a dozen years, and because teams didn't track silly stats like on-base percentage back in those days, we might not ever know how bad he truly was. But from the extant numbers upon which we're able to extrapolate, Merchant's career slash line reads .263/.302/.397. Contrary to popular belief, Ken Griffey, Jr. wasn't the consensus top pick that year. Many teams had Griffey and Merchant equally atop their draft boards. What happened? Nobody's really sure, but while playing in the minor leagues, Merchant suffered a seizure of unclear origin, causing doctors to speculate that he had a form of epilepsy that caused him to suck at baseball. Note that this is not the same form of epilepsy suffered by Grover Cleveland Alexander, who was obviously awesome at baseball.

1988 - Austin Manahan, SS, Horizon HS - Scottsdale, AZ (13th)
Selected ahead of Tino Martinez, Royce Clayton, Charles Nagy, Alex Fernandez and Brian Jordan, as well as eventual future Pirates Jon Ericks, Ed Sprague and Dave Wainhouse, Manahan struggled to get out A-ball, playing four years in the Pirates system before a brief stint with their Southern League affiliate, the Carolina Mudcats. He gave up after eight seasons in the minors and never made it to the bigs. He lives in Phoenix, where he works as the sales director for something called Glad2bhome.

1989 - Willie Greene, SS, Jones County HS - Gray, GA (18th)
The year of the unsinkable Ben McDonald proved to be pretty weak, so it's certainly understandable that the Pirates wound up with a garbage player. Still, Greene found a way to play nine years in the league with four different teams. His career achievements include being packaged with Moises Alou in the Pirates' trade for Zane Smith, and being born in the same town where Ben Roethlisberger celebrated his 28th birthday. Mr. Greene's whereabouts are currently unknown.

1990 - Kurt Miller, RHP, West HS - Bakersfield, CA (5th)
The 1990 draft was even more disappointing across the board than the 1989 draft. The Pirates could have saved themselves some trouble and taken future disappointments Jeromy Burnitz, Todd Ritchie, Todd Van Poppel or Midre Cummings, or the once and future Mayor of Altoona, Adam Hyzdu. Instead, they chose high school hurler Kurt Miller. Miller played two years in the Pirates' system -- for which there are few extant statistics -- before he was traded to Texas for Steve Buchele. He went on to play parts of five seasons in the majors and two in Japan before hanging 'em up. His current whereabouts are unknown.

1991 - Jon Farrell, C, Florida JC - Jacksonville, FL (24th)
Looking back on these drafts, I'm beginning to wonder how baseball survived the 90s. Maybe steroids were a good thing. The only players of any consequence taken in the first round in '91 were Manny Ramirez and Shawn Green, with a tip of the cap to the certifiably insane Cliff Floyd. Farrell put up .246/.314/.399 over six minor league seasons. His current whereabouts are unknown.

1992 - Jason Kendall, C, Torrance HS - Torrance, CA (23rd)
As far as Wins Above Replacement (WAR) goes, Jason Kendall was the third best player selected in the first round in 1992, eclipsed only by Derek Jeter, who went sixth, and Johnny Damon, whom Kansas City took 35th overall with a supplemental pick. The face of the franchise for several years -- and the face of the payroll even long after his departure -- Kendall is best remembered for being a colossal asshole who never hit any home runs and once suffered a horrifying injury. The Pirates unloaded Kendall and his six-year, $60 million contract to Oakland for Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes. He is currently the starting catcher for the Kansas City Royals, where he's hitting.282/.345/.343, though he no doubt leads the American League in being miserable.

1993 - Charles Peterson, OF, Laurens District HS - Laurens, SC (22nd)
The '93 draft was actually top-heavy with talent. Trouble was, all of it was gone by the time the Pirates' pick rolled around. A-Rod, Trot Nixon, Billy Wagner, Derrek Lee, Chris Carpenter, Torii Hunter and Jason Varitek were all off the board by the 22nd pick. Peterson lasted six years in the system, stole a ton of bases, and put up relatively pedestrian numbers overall. Peterson must have had some kind of substantive character issue, because while his minor league numbers weren't great, they weren't terrible, and where a lot of teams will take a flier on a former first-rounder as a low-cost reclamation project, the only work Peterson found after the Pirates let him go in 1998 was in the independent leagues. He played in the Northern League, Mexican League and the Canadian-American Association before falling off the map after 2006. His common name and presumably murky past have, but for his minor league numbers, rendered him all but anonymous in the vast jungle of the Internet.

1994 - Mark Farris, SS, Angleton HS - Angleton, TX (11th)
I'm not a terribly superstitious fan. I recognize that these drafts have nothing in common with the ones we've seen so far from Neal Huntington's office. That said, I'm still a wee bit freaked out by the Bucs' awful luck with first-round shortstops. When the Pirates took Farris, they knew full well that there was a possibility he might decide to honor his letter of intent to play quarterback for Texas A&M. Call it an assumed risk. They also knew that still left on the board were Nomar Garciaparra, Paul Konerko and Jason Varitek, who had gone back into the draft pool after not signing the previous year. And those three players were subsequently drafted in that order as soon as the Pirates took Farris. Farris played four seasons over five years in the Pirates system, reaching Double-A before deciding to try his hand at college football. That didn't work out, either. Farris currently runs an insurance agency in Texas.

1995 - Chad Hermansen, OF, Green Valley HS - Henderson, NV (10th)
We were told he could walk on water. Scouts salivated over the power and the speed. And as we sit here now, this center fielder of the future might be one of the biggest reasons the fan base still distrusts the club with regard to its scouting and drafting. Pirates fans know Chad was a colossal bust, given his hype. They know he bounced around the minors for a while. So rather than hash out the story with numbers and anecdotes, I'm just going to paste some quotes from Chad's twitter page that I feel accurately illustrate just how sad this story was and continues to be:

"please vote for my business partners daughter Kylie at www.CBS.com for the next Victoria Secret model which will be featured tonight!"

"
Mark McGwire leading candidate for Cardinals hitting coach. Very interesting!"

"
just saw The Time Traveler with my wife, it was ok!"

1996 - Kris Benson, RHP, Clemson University (1st)
Peter Gammons swore that Benson would win a Cy Young Award before his career was over. He had four solid pitches, he located effectively and he was powerful. But then he blew out his arm and married a mouthy stripper. After the Pirates dealt Benson to the Mets, his wife unleashed herself on the New York media, culminating in her telling Howard Stern that if Kris ever cheated on her, she would get revenge on him by sleeping with everyone in the Mets' organization. Later she contended that Mets GM Omar Minaya was attempting to assemble an all-Latino team. Kris Benson later acknowledged that it was likely his wife's behavior that sent him packing from the Mets. And so began the great string of Pirates first-round pitchers to succumb to chronic arm injuries and the drawbacks of having married mouthy strippers. Benson is currently pitching for the Reno Aces, Triple-A affiliate of the Arizona Diamondbacks.