Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Figuring out the postseason roster

I don't know what to say after last night. I really don't. This entire season has been a combination of amazement, disbelief, astonishment and hope.

Pat Lackey, who writes the outstanding Pirates blog Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke, put it about as well as anyone who's waited for this possibly could have, so I'll recommend his post on the Pirates making the playoffs. 

At some point, I anticipate I'll do a season wrap-up, during which I'll let it all fly. But being one of America's chronically underemployed, I spend a lot of time writing for other people these days and much less for myself. 

Okay, so everyone gets a fresh 25 for the start of the play-in round. It's conceivable that the Pirates could leave someone off of their postseason roster, but only do it for one game. Whatever. I don't care what James Santelli says, they're not going to bring in Chase d'Arnaud for one game. The way I see it, there are 20 guys who have postseason roster spots locked up (10 pitchers and 10 position players). They are:

Francisco Liriano
A.J. Burnett
Charlie Morton
Gerrit Cole
Jeanmar Gomez
Vin Mazzaro
Tony Watson
Justin Wilson
Mark Melancon
Jason Grilli

Russell Martin
Pedro Alvarez
Clint Barmes
Jordy Mercer
Justin Morneau
Gaby Sanchez
Neil Walker
Marlon Byrd
Andrew McCutchen
Jose Tabata

That leaves five spots open, so let's break down who's left.

Kyle Farnsworth: I just don't see it.
Kris Johnson: Not a chance.
Jeff Locke: We already know it's not happening because the Pirates are skipping his final start and going with a four-man rotation in the playoffs. Locke is a completely unnecessary pitcher, which is fine because he's also a completely terrible pitcher who walks 19 guys an inning.
Jared Hughes: The Pirates are going to need to keep a righty out of this group, but I'd be shocked if it was Hughes. He's been nothing but a mop-up guy when healthy this year, and hasn't particularly excelled at that.
Bryan Morris: Sweet christ on a stick is this guy awful. But he's in the same category as Hughes. He's been with the club nearly all year, and for some unknown reason, Hurdle keeps going to him in high-leverage situations.
Stolmy Pimentel: I would love it if the Pirates kept Stolmy, but I have a hard time seeing it happening. It's not inconceivable, but it just doesn't seem likely. Pimentel has better stuff than Hughes or Morris, and the potential to be a pretty good starter looking toward next year. He's deserving of consideration which normally, I'd say he wouldn't get. On one hand, the Pirates have been especially smart this season. On the other hand, Hurdle keeps using Bryan Morris in close games.
Brandon Cumpton: Save injury, I think the only way Cumpton makes the postseason roster is if Jeanmar Gomez doesn't, and Gomez has the advantage of having been in the long relief role for a bulk of the season. This is stupid. Cumpton has more of place on the postseason roster than Morris or Hughes. He throws a sinker and he gets ground balls. With the way the Pirates play defense, that's the most important thing. 

It would make a lot of sense if the Pirates only opted to carry 11 pitchers on the postseason roster, given that they're going with a four-man rotation. If they're going to take just one out of this group to round out the pen, it's probably going to be Morris. It should be Pimentel or Cumpton. The thought of it being Morris makes me physically ill, and when referring to him from now on, I'm going to call him Pitcher X because I'm so goddamn sick of typing his name.

John Buck and Tony Sanchez: The Pirates have three guys who play only this position. I'd never given John Buck a second thought before he came here. He's your run-of-the-mill backup catcher. But now that I've seen him, I can say with certainty that he's legitimately awful. Tony Sanchez is the better catcher of the two, and should be Martin's backup on the postseason roster. That said, would it shock anyone if the Pirates kept Buck for the mere notion of power he has which Sanchez doesn't? Not really. But they shouldn't.
Josh Harrison: Jay Hay should probably be on the roster. His versatility in the field, combined with the fact that neither Walker nor Alvarez can hit lefties particularly well, almost necessitates it. Man, that was a weird couple of sentences.
Andrew Lambo: He might be the minor league player of the year, but he's done nothing in the majors and the Pirates aren't hurting for lefty bats. Lambo won't make it.
Starling Marte: Marte has a torn tendon in his finger. The only way it's going to heal is with rest and time. And it will heal. But until then, he's going to play in pain, probably with the aid of cortisone shots. It's incredibly risky to carry a guy who might be nothing more than a defensive replacement and pinch runner, but between his upside and how he's hit the last two nights, I can't see him being left behind. He'll be on the roster.
Felix Pie: Remember that thing I just said about how a team shouldn't carry a guy who's nothing more than a defensive replacement and pinch runner? That applies here. Baleeted.
Garrett Jones and Travis Snider: These two guys do ostensibly the same thing from the same side of the plate, and they're both terrible. Snider has been better in pinch-hitting situations, but Jones...has been here longer? There's very little redeeming about Garrett Jones at this point in his career. If they keep one of these two, it's going to be Snider. But they could easily keep both, if only because I can't see any team going into the playoffs with Felix Pie on its roster.

FTC's Last five in:
Josh Harrison
Starling Marte
Travis SniderGarrett Jones
Tony Sanchez
Brandon Cumpton

The likely last five in:
Josh Harrison
Starling Marte
Garrett Jones
John Buck
Pitcher X

EDIT: Nils brings up an excellent point. If the final game of the season is meaningful, Cole will be scheduled to start it. Since he'd be unavailable to pitch during the Wild Card game, the Pirates could leave him off the initial roster in favor of either Cumpton or Pimentel, and then add him back were they to win that game.

A quick note on payroll, which I only bring up because I'm still hearing assholes complain that it will never be real because baseball is so economically unfair and broken:

I wouldn't argue for a second that baseball isn't economically unfair or broken. But it's not about how much money you spend. It's about how you spend it

Ask Philly and their $160 million payroll. Or the White Sox and their $123 million tab. Or maybe the Angels, who spent nearly $142 million this year, or the Blue Jays, who spent $118.5 million. $105 million got the Cubs between 65 and 68 wins this year, and the Brewers dropped $91 million for no more than 73 wins.

Conversely, Tampa Bay spent $59 million. The A's spent a little over $65 million. Cleveland spent $82 million, and the Pirates spent $66 million.

Of the 15 highest payrolls in baseball, 10 of those teams won't make the playoffs. Three of the five teams who've spent the least this year have already locked up postseason spots.

The Yankees and their $230 million payroll are mathematically eliminated. But you're right. I'm sure the Pirates can't contend with them -- they just have too much money.

Best moment so far this season: The Pirates get their 90th win in the same fashion that sent them packing 21 years ago. 

Close second: Listening to Vin Scully explain the ethos of Brian Wilson over a span of three batters. If you don't have, get it for next year because he's coming back for his 64th year calling Dodgers games. Being able to listen to Scully, the last one-man booth in all of sports, call games is worth the price by itself. We don't get to hear him so much out here, but if you're a real fan of baseball or even just great announcing, turns of phrase or the English language, the smooth hum of this guy's voice is like nothing else. He puts everyone else in broadcasting to shame.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

The elegiac symmetry of the emerald chess board

"While science has nothing of value to say on the great and aching questions of life, death, love, and meaning, what the religious traditions of mankind have said forms a coherent body of thought. 
"The yearnings of the human soul are not in vain. There is a system of belief adequate to the complexity of experience.
"There is recompense for suffering. A principle beyond selfishness is at work in the cosmos.
"All will be well." 

- David Berlinski (who is wrong about everything else)

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Joy cometh in the morning

The Flying Nanners (official kickball team of Free Tank Carter) played and split a doubleheader tonight. When we got to Hough's (official bar of the Flying Nanners) after the second game, muddied and exhausted, it was just in time to see Marlon Byrd's seventh-inning double, followed by an incredibly fancy, opposite-field double from Pedro Alvarez.

Terror struck when Tony Watson was on the hill with two down in the eighth, as Root Sports showed Bryan Morris warming up in the bullpen, but a fly ball to center ended all speculation that we'd see anyone but Mark Melancon come the ninth.

I said last week when I started organizing a series of ballgame watching parties a Pittsburgh bars that I just wanted to experience the streak-breaking game in the presence of people who'd genuinely appreciate it. After three failed attempts and one Jeff Locke start -- for which I didn't bother to organize anything, knowing that Jeff Locke was starting -- I gave up. That win would come when it would come, and I couldn't keep trying to get scads of people out to bars on weeknights to watch terrible baseball. Even in success, leave it to the Pirates to make everything as difficult as possible.

So after two stupidly messy kickball games, to get to the bar and find not only that the Pirates weren't losing, but that they and Gerrit Cole were matching Yu Darvish and the Rangers blow-for-blow was about as wonderful a surprise as we could have hoped for. I didn't get to see it at on my terms, but I did get to see it with a crowd of people who recognized its significance.

Melancon came on and did his thing. My friend Melanie captured me standing next to Nilesh as Neil Walker scooped up the ground ball which ended it.

The entire bar -- everyone who'd come to watch Monday Night Football, the Pirates, or just have a beer following their league games -- erupted. And chants of "shots! shots! shots!" rang out, and we happily complied.

In that instant, everything was perfect, clean, right.

In a few hours, I will, for the first time since I was nine years old, wake up a fan of a winning baseball team.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

This is the day

When I used to think about The Streak ending, I always had a hard time picturing what it looked like. I saw myself at the ballpark in late September. I saw my arms in the air. I saw tears in my eyes. And then, I thought about about how tremendously unfulfilled it would feel to just win 82 games. 
Maybe the only thing I didn't count on was the clinching game happening on the road -- kind of a head-scratcher when you think about half the games being played on the road, but in a way, that I never counted on it being on the road makes sense, as that's just how far from reality the moment has seemed for so long.
The way in which this is going down is actually ideal. That the Pirates are on the road means there's no fight or failure to get a ticket to The game. We're all going to be watching it at home, at a bar, whatever. 
And it shifts the focus to what suddenly matters more to this team: they're chasing a division title. They finished fourth in a five-team division last year, and this year, extrapolated standings based on performance have them finishing with 94 wins.
How quickly priorities change.
At this point, a winning season is a fait accompli. The Streak will end and these stupid assholes are going to make the playoffs. And we'll get to that. But whether it happens tonight or Friday or Saturday, it's important that we acknowledge the 82nd win. 
No, it's not the goal. No, it doesn't, in the grand scheme of things, mean nearly as much as the season does, or the state of the minor league system, or the depth of the Major League roster, or the way Neal Huntington's unbelievable patience and sack at the deadline and into August are indicative of a encouraging gestalt shift in the fans' view of the organization's front office. It doesn't mean much at this point. It's just a minor landmark en route to something much bigger.
But nonetheless, it's important that we acknowledge it. It's a weight off our shoulders. It's a deeper breath than we've been able to take in a long time. And it's an opportunity to experience a prolonged form of the actual joy that, for the last 20 years, we've known only in fleeting moments
This ignominy has lasted for two-thirds of my life. The idea of it being gone -- mathematically impossible to continue -- by the time I wake up tomorrow, delights me.
When you watch or listen to the game tonight, reflect the last 20 years. Think about the people who aren't around to see it. And most of all, notice and enjoy how happy you are. 
Kurt Vonnegut said and wrote a lot of great stuff, but nothing more precious or valuable than relaying advice his Uncle Alex once gave him:
"I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"
We've waited a long time for this. No sense in not enjoying it.
Now that we've had this talk, watch Francisco Liriano go out and give up 10 runs in three innings and walk six, and the offense stubbornly refuse to hit anything off of Wily Peralta. That'd be just like them, wouldn't it?