SweetSpot: Pittsburgh Pirates

Matt Cain continues to mystify

April, 14, 2012
Matt Cain has been flummoxing statheads almost as long as he has been flummoxing opposing hitters. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound right-hander has quietly become one of baseball's premier pitchers since earning a regular spot in the San Francisco Giants' rotation in 2006, despite a career xFIP (4.26) nearly a full run higher than his career ERA (3.37).

Utilizing a typical starting pitcher's tool chest -- fastball, slider, changeup, curve -- Cain has posted an ERA between 2.88 and 3.14 in each of the past three seasons, but stood in the background as teammate and 2008-09 back-to-back Cy Young Award winner Tim Lincecum shone in the spotlight. Sabermetricians labeled Cain a fluke, bound to regress to a 4.50 ERA that was more in line with his xFIP.

[+] EnlargeMatt Cain
AP Photo/Eric RisbergMatt Cain tips his cap after his one-hit, 11-strikeout shutout in the Giants' home opener.
In fact, many balked when the Giants awarded Cain a six-year, $127.5 million contract extension nearly two weeks ago. Cain has never finished higher than eighth in Cy Young balloting and never posted a strikeout-to-walk ratio in excess of 3-1. How could he possibly be worth that much money?

Cain showed exactly how in this afternoon's game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. He brought a perfect game into the sixth inning, allowing his first hit with two out in the frame to opposing starter James McDonald on his way to a 5-0 Giants victory. The home crowd in San Francisco gave him a lengthy and appreciative standing ovation, perhaps a penance for worrying after his first start, in which the Arizona Diamondbacks tagged him for five runs over six innings.

While he is not known for his ability to strike batters out on a frequent basis, Cain has posted an average strikeout rate (a shade under 20 percent) over his career. Today, Cain struck out 11 Pirates, utilizing expert pitch sequencing. ESPN Stats & Information notes that eight of his 11 punchouts were on pitches out of the strike zone, and overall, Pirates hitters chased at 58 percent of pitches out of the zone.

An added bonus to being so unpredictable is weak contact. Since 2006, among starters with at least 1,000 innings pitched, Cain has the fourth-highest infield fly ball rate at 12.6 percent, trailing Ted Lilly (13.8), Jered Weaver (13.6), and Bronson Arroyo (12.7). As a result, Cain's career batting average on balls on play sits at .265, about 35 points below the average for pitchers and the point to which most pitchers regress. That low BABIP is the reason most expected him to regress, but he has proven he has an ability to limit hits on balls in play better than most pitchers, which is a rare skill.

If Cain had authored the 273rd no-hitter in baseball history, he certainly would have gained some recognition across the baseball world. But in reality, his resume is already impressive enough, and he has been everything the Giants had hoped for when they drafted him in the first round of the 2002 draft and, at 27 years old, there is plenty more still to come.

Bill Baer writes for Crashburn Alley and you can follow him on Twitter here.

2012 predictions you couldn't predict?

February, 18, 2012
Last year, You Can't Predict Baseball came up with bold predictions for the year. We had a lot of fun coming up with them, and then laughing at how hilariously wrong they were at the end of the year. This year, we're bringing these predictions to SweetSpot, along with explanations for some of them. Keep in mind, these predictions are supposed to be bold, but not insane -- even we know the Orioles aren't going to the playoffs in 2012.

Los Angeles Angels: Kendrys Morales stays healthy all year.

Houston Astros: Bud Norris is top five in K/9 in the NL. We figured something good had to happen to the Astros, right? Norris actually has a pretty nice career K/9.

Oakland Athletics: Yoenis Cespedes is their starting center fielder by Memorial Day.

Toronto Blue Jays: Brandon Morrow makes the jump to elite starting pitcher. He's struck out more than 10 batters per 9 innings two years running, though his ERAs have remained ugly. We think this is the year his results finally match the stuff, especially considering his declining walk rate.

Atlanta Braves: Julio Teheran has more wins than Tim Hudson.

[+] EnlargeRickie Weeks
AP Photo/David J. PhillipWith Prince Fielder gone to Detroit and Ryan Braun facing possible disciplinary action, Rickie Weeks could lead the Milwaukee Brewers in home runs in 2012.
Milwaukee Brewers: Rickie Weeks leads the team in home runs. He was fourth on the team last year, with 20. In front of him were Corey Hart with 26, Ryan Braun with 33, and Prince Fielder with 38. Fielder is gone, and for this prediction we'll assume Braun will miss a third of the year due to a suspension. It's not too bold to think Weeks could pass Hart in 2012.

St. Louis Cardinals: Carlos Beltran outproduces Albert Pujols from last year. Albert Pujols was great last year, but not quite best-player-of-his-generation Albert Pujols. If healthy, it's not absurd to think of Beltran outproducing Pujols' 5.1 WAR in 2011.

Chicago Cubs: Matt Garza isn't their best pitcher. It'll be Ryan Dempster, who had great peripherals but bad results last year.

Arizona Diamondbacks: Aaron Hill will be good again. He was great with them in limited time, and Arizona's park is quite hitter-friendly.

Los Angeles Dodgers: James Loney will be a top-three first baseman in the National League. Many thanks to Mike Scioscia's Tragic Illness for somewhat alerting us to this one. We just decided to take it semi-absurdly far.

San Francisco Giants: Madison Bumgarner is their best pitcher. In terms of ERA, he already wasn't very far behind Matt Cain and Tim Lincecum, and his K/BB ratio eclipsed theirs by quite a bit.

Cleveland Indians: They'll have the best pitching in the American League Central. We're banking on Ubaldo Jimenez, making a major comeback to something closer to what he was in 2010, and the rest of the staff displaying the good that they did in 2011. We're also counting on the Tigers' starters not being very impressive behind Justin Verlander, which is bold but not quite insane, and the pitching of the White Sox, Twins and Royals not being able to keep up with Cleveland's.

Seattle Mariners: Jesus Montero catches 100-plus games. The Mariners probably aren't going to compete, so why not try and play him where he'll accrue the most value?

Miami Marlins: Despite all their new acquisitions and the hype, they still finish fourth in the NL East. When you think about it, this one isn't so crazy. If Josh Johnson isn't healthy and maybe even if he is their pitching still trails that of Philadelphia, Washington, and Atlanta; even with Heath Bell, we don't think their bullpen is as good, either. Their offense might be better than some of those teams', but the Marlins were quite a bit below league average offensively last year and we're not sure how much Jose Reyes is going to make up for that.

New York Mets: Mike Pelfrey is the worst starter in the NL. Pelfrey's been pretty terrible two of the past three years, and now they're moving the fences in at Citi Field. He was far better in his huge home stadium, but we're guessing with the moved-in walls he'll be significantly worse at Citi. Here at YCPB, we actually don't think the Mets are going to be quite as dire as many are saying, even if they do come in last place in the NL East - but Pelfrey won't be a bright spot.

Washington Nationals: Stephen Strasburg has a 17-strikeout game.

Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters is the best catcher in the AL. A lot of people are so obsessed with Wieters not matching the hype that they didn't notice he became a plus offensive performer last year, to go along with very good defense. His taking the next step isn't that bold as predictions go, especially if Joe Mauer has to move off catcher.

San Diego Padres: Luke Gregerson is a top-three closer in the NL.

Philadelphia Phillies: Cole Hamels is their best starter. And this isn't meant to be a slight to Roy Halladay or Cliff Lee, but considering their ages and the fact that Hamels is pretty darn good himself, plus a possible boost from a contract year...

Pittsburgh Pirates: Charlie Morton is their All-Star.

Texas Rangers: Yu Darvish isn't their best starter -- but he's still good. And we think he'll be pretty good, we just think Derek Holland will become more consistently good, or Matt Harrison will put up numbers like his 2011.

Tampa Bay Rays: James Shields will have no complete games. Predicting someone to have no complete games might not seem bold, but it is when it's a guy who was known as "Complete Game James" last season. Shields did have 11 complete games in 2011, an almost unheard-of number these days, but he had no complete games in 2009 or 2010.

[+] EnlargeJames Shields
Kim Klement/US PresswireAfter none in either 2009 or 10, James Shields pitched 11 complete games for Tampa Bay in 2011.
Boston Red Sox: No one hits 30 home runs. This might seem crazy when you consider their great offensive numbers last year, but only one player on their team hit 30 home runs and it was Jacoby Ellsbury with 32.

Cincinnati Reds: Brandon Phillips is the best second baseman in the NL.

Colorado Rockies: Jamie Moyer will have the best HR/9 on the staff.

Kansas City Royals: They reach .500. While their pitching won't be great, their offense will take a big step forward this year. Combined with the rest of their division being the Tigers and some dumpster fires, it's not that difficult to see it happening.

Detroit Tigers: They score fewer runs than they did in 2011. Yes, that’s even with Fielder. It's not improbable that Jhonny Peralta, Alex Avila and Delmon Young regress quite a bit from their numbers with Detroit last year, and that Prince Fielder's production "only" makes up for the offensive loss of Victor Martinez in 2012. They'll still have a very good offense, though.

Minnesota Twins: Joe Mauer hits 15 home runs.

Chicago White Sox: Robin Ventura gets ejected more times than Ozzie Guillen. Look at the state of the White Sox. We'd get ejected too.

New York Yankees: Hiroki Kuroda leads the team in ERA.

You Can't Predict Baseball is an affiliate of the SweetSpot network.

Arguing for the greatness of Tabata

November, 16, 2010
Yesterday, we learned that one voter, Dejan Kovacevic, left Jason Heyward completely off his Rookie of the Year ballot. In his Twitter feed, Kovacevic gamely offered a good-natured defense, starting here:

Re: ROY voting. Felt very firmly about Posey, thus chose him 1st. Felt Walker/Tabata had strong years, comparable to rest of class. (More)

Neither Walker nor Tabata is off-the-board choice, as seen from list of NL rookies with 400 PA, ranked by OPS.

Why 400 rather than 500? You tell me. But here's the list, including OPS (first) and PA:

1. Buster Posey 862/443
2. Jason Heyward 849/623
3. Neil Walker 811/469
4. Ike Davis 791/601
5. Gaby Sanchez 788/643
6. Starlin Castro 755/506
7. Jose Tabata 746/441
8. Ian Desmond 700/574
9. Roger Bernadina 691/461
10. Alcides Escobar 614/552

The first thing you might notice is that Alcides Escobar really, really can't hit (or didn't, anyway). The second thing you might notice is that Heyward finished with a higher OPS than Walker, a much higher OPS than Tabata, and many more PA than both of them.

It's hard for me to understand the reasoning here, unless Kovacevic figured if Posey's 443 plate appearances weren't an issue, nobody else's were, either. That doesn't explain the massive difference between Heyward's OPS and Tabata's. But we're just getting started ...

Obviously saw way more of Walker/Tabata than others, but that also gave perspective on them performing at high level in poor lineup/setting.

Tabata did not perform at "high" level. OPS slightly better than league average, finished roughly one win above replacement level. Also, no obvious reason to award extra credit to rookies on lousy teams.

No one else cast a vote for Walker, an easy-to-make case for a top-three ROY performer. That, to me, underscores importance of local views.

Actually, the results would seem to underscore the irrelevance of local views, except on those rare occasions when a local view actually swings the vote. In this case, Walker's single second-place vote will (soon) be merely a forgotten footnote.

Can one make a top-three case for Walker? Sure. He didn't play a lot, but when he played he played second base and he hit a half-ton. He wouldn't have been my second-place guy because of Posey and Heyward, and he wouldn't have been my third-place guy because of Jaime Garcia. But I can sort of almost understand third.

Local writers will see/appreciate things a player can do that others might not. That counts, for a player's good facets and bad.

I can see Alvarez's OPS, for example, and know first-hand that he feasted off September subs down the stretch for a lot of his numbers.

Ah, the "You have to see him play every day" argument. I think the last time I heard that one, John Sterling was trying to convince me (or rather, his radio listeners) that I just couldn't appreciate Derek Jeter's defense because I didn't watch enough Yankee games. So easy to make, so easy to refute.

You don't have to see Alvarez every day, though, to know what sort of pitchers he faced in September. Anyone who's interested can look that stuff up.

It's a 162-game sked, but here are post-break NL hits leaders among ALL players, not just rookies.

Yes, it is a 162-game schedule. Why should we tie a Rookie of the Year case to the second half? Tabata's 93 second-half hits ranked second in the National League; Walker's 87 were tied for fifth. I have no idea why we should care. The hits and the runs and the wins count exactly the same in August as in June.

Also, even with all those hits, Tabata wasn't great in the second half. The great majority of those hits were singles, he drew very few walks, and his second-half OPS was still much lower than Heyward's full-schedule OPS.

Last one: Tabata's defense in PNC's huge LF, compared to ALL major-league players, per UZR/150 on FanGraphs.

His UZR wasn't all that impressive, actually. I mean, it was good: 11.4 ranked fifth among the 16 players with at least 750 innings in left field. But it's a thin reed upon which to hang a Rookie of the Year case. Especially considering Tabata's relatively weak hitting statistics.

If you ignore Jaime Garcia, it's not impossible to get Neil Walker into your top three. If you interpret every scrap of information in Jose Tabata's favor, maybe you can make a top-five case for him. I couldn't do it. But I'm of just slightly-above-average intelligence.

The problem is that in all of this, there's not a single mention of Heyward. It's one thing to build up Walker and Tabata. But for justify leaving Heyward off his ballot entirely, Kovacevic would also have to somehow tear Heyward down. And he hasn't made any effort to do that.

It's wonderful that we know which voter left Heyward off the ballot. It's more wonderful that this voter took the time to explain his ballot, and marshaled a fair number of facts.

There's still something missing, though. And it's the biggest thing: What was wrong with Jason Heyward?

Do Pirates overreact to players' frustrations?

September, 22, 2010
Baseball Management 101, via Dejan Kovacevic:

So, Garrett Jones thinks he can be more than a platoon player?

You can read about that it in the Notebook below, but I will add here that all concerned, the Pirates and Jones, would do well not to affix or accept labels prematurely. And then, if the Pirates do affix such labels, they should not take umbrage when the athlete thinks he can do better.

Any of this ring a bell?

In the summer of 2008, just before a morning workout at Wrigley, Jose Bautista was told by John Russell that he had lost his job to Andy LaRoche. This was what Bautista told me that morning in the visitors' dugout.

Seem harmless?

Nevertheless, the Pirates, by several accounts, took umbrage that Bautista expressed that he still saw himself as everyday material, almost as if it were an act of insubordination.

Then, Bautista was sent to the minors.

Then, after Bautista did very well in the minors, he was traded to Toronto for third-string, since-released catcher Robinzon Diaz.

You know the rest.

The Rest: Diaz signs with Tigers, posts .269 on-base percentage in Triple-A; Jose Bautista leads Major League Baseball in home runs.

Oh, and in case you didn't click: That morning in the dugout, Bautista told Kovacevic, "If there's a reason for my demotion, I don't have one. They really didn't give me one."

That's his side. And frankly, while we have some idea of what Bautista told Kovacevic, we have no idea what Bautista might have said to management. Still, you can understand if he was frustrated. At the time, his .251/.326/.421 line wasn't anything special ... but at the same time, Andy LaRoche's line in 62 games with the Dodgers was less special: .217/.348/.316.

Of course, at the time I loved that move for the Pirates. I loved LaRoche's fantastic minor-league numbers, and was convinced that all he needed was a real chance to play.

You know the rest of that, too. The Pirates were wrong. I was really wrong. Jose Bautista's leading Major League Baseball in home runs.

Maybe, as Kovacevic suggests, there's a lesson in here for the Pirates about letting players express themselves. I hope there's a lesson for me in here, about the unpredictability of young men playing a difficult game.

Granted, Garrett Jones does have a .245 career OBP against lefties ...

The limits of our knowledge

September, 9, 2010
Yankeeist has a nice interview with Alex Langsam, who works in the Pirates' front office. The whole thing's worth reading -- especially if you're a Pirates fan, or young and ambitious, or a young-and-ambitious Pirates fan -- but here's just one bit for you:
    As far as blogs go, I definitely try to keep a general idea of what’s being said in a number of Pirates Blogs as well as in the more popular national forums like Fangraphs. A lot of the groundbreaking public research in baseball right now is being done on the blogs and I think it would be pretty shortsighted to not give them proper attention. With that said, there are a lot of aspects that go into any decision that the blogs (and the mainstream media) are not privy to. In my limited time here I’ve felt that we can’t afford to not be creative and inventive in the way we operate, so it would be silly to not take good ideas wherever they come from, be it the blogs, scouting reports from someplace like Baseball America and, first and foremost, our own people.

It's important for people like me to seem utterly confident, because confidence is (in most situations) more compelling. If, every time I'm making some argument or another, I pause to throw in a qualifier every few sentences, you're going to find something else to read.

This is simply the bargain that editorialists and analysts must strike.

Just occasionally, though, I'll let you know in on this dirty little secret: There's a lot of stuff we don't know. There are also things we do know, but can't write because we don't want to betray the confidence of our sources.

But it's mostly the stuff we don't know. Sometimes when a team makes a trade that seems lopsided against them, there are reasons the writers just don't know (or can't write) about. Often, when a general manager does something that seems particularly idiotic, he's merely carrying out the orders of the man who signs his paycheck. Dozens of things like this happen every season, and we analyze blindly as if everyone's a rational actor playing in a Strat-O-Matic keeper league.

But they're not. They're intelligent-but-flawed individuals who have to worry about families and egos and money and all the other non-logical things that contribute to human behavior. Mel Brooks once said, "As long as the world is turning and spinning, we're gonna be dizzy and we're gonna make mistakes." And sometimes we're gonna do things that we just can't tell the baseball writers about.

Bucs' Alvarez not among RoY candidates

August, 25, 2010
Among the reasons to be (guardedly) optimistic about the Pirates' future: farm products Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, and Jose Tabata, all of whom are shy of 25 -- in Walker's case, barely; in Tabata's case, by a lot -- and have held their own in the majors this season. Let's not get too excited about those guys, though. None have played brilliantly, and ... well, let's fisk this comparison:
    While some fan bases prepare for a final month of playoff races, Pittsburgh Pirates fans are nearing the end of the franchise's 18th consecutive losing season. This means the Pirates have been bottom dwellers for the entire life span of most high school seniors. However, we're not here to focus on the past, but rather, the future. Namely, the future of Pedro Alvarez.

    After years of misses at the top of the draft, the Pirates selected Alvarez in 2008. The former Vanderbilt teammate of Rays ace David Price is already a regular in the Pittsburgh lineup. Some questions remain about which side of the diamond he'll play down the road, but for now, the 23-year-old the man at the hot corner for the Buccos.

    Before signing his pro contract, Alvarez and his agent Scott Boras made plenty of headlines, In the end, though, he made his major league debut with relatively little hype. Despite lacking the media coverage of Jason Heyward (to say nothing of Stephen Strasburg) upon his debut, Alvarez has been one of this year's most productive rookies, coming close to Heyward's level of production.

This is a real stretch. Even leaving aside the raw numbers -- Heyward's played 45 more games than Alvarez -- Heyward has a huge edge in OPS: 827 to 735. Heyward's also three years younger than Alvarez. Essentially, if everything works out for Heyward he'll be in the Hall of Fame someday, and if everything works out for Alvarez he'll play in a couple of All-Star Games.

Even if Alvarez had played more this season, he wouldn't be a strong Rookie of the Year candidate. Which is fine, since there are plenty of those without him. In April, Heyward looked like a lock for the award (as much as anyone can look like a lock for anything in April). But then came that lousy June and those three weeks on the DL. Since returning to the Braves' lineup in mid-July, Heyward's been good but not great, which has allowed a few other fellows into the mix. Most notably, Gaby Sanchez has roughly the same OPS as Heyward in more playing time, and Starlin Castro's not far behind while playing shortstop. And of course Buster Posey would trump them all if not for the Giants' odd infatuation with Bengie Molina.

The only two pitchers with a fighting chance are Jaime Garcia and John Axford. Garcia's got the shiny ERA (2.42) but only 11 wins, and I suspect he needs at least 14 to have a shot at beating out the top hitter on the ballot. Axford's got 19 saves, and Andrew Bailey won in the American League last year with only 26 saves. But Bailey pitched 83 innings while Axford is going to top out around 60 innings.

Heyward's going to get extra credit for the spring hype. But the voters, I think, should take long looks at Sanchez, Castro, and Garcia, too.

Parsing Pittsburgh's P's and L's

August, 23, 2010
As a fan -- of politics, sports, whatever -- you have to love leaks. Especially juicy leaks like the one exposing two full years of the Pirates' finances. The one showing the Pirates netted nearly $30 million in 2007 and 2008. Granted, nobody said every team is supposed to break even ever year ...
    Still, fans and critics ask how a team that won five World Series from 1909-1979 and nine division titles from 1969-92 can be so bad.

    "I think it's very important for smaller markets teams to be careful about spending payroll, but there's a reason to be skeptical and cynical about what's going on (in Pittsburgh)," Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economist, said.

    To cut payroll, the Pirates have shed former All-Stars Jason Bay, Freddy Sanchez, Nate McLouth and Jack Wilson in trades, along with nearly every other player who was arbitration eligible -- or close to it -- or free agency: Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, John Grabow, Xavier Nady, Adam LaRoche, Damaso Marte, Nyjer Morgan, Ronny Paulino and Sean Burnett.

    They also dealt slugger Jose Bautista to Toronto for a backup catcher who has since left their system, and cut NL All-Star closer Matt Capps without getting anything in return because he sought a $500,000 raise.

    The team says it needs money to have the flexibility to make better investments going forward.

Go back and re-read the names in that third paragraph ... Got 'em?

Now, which of those talented young men would you want on your roster right now if you were running the Pirates?

Without checking every one of them, I think the correct answer might be ZERO of them. Just for fun, click on each of those former All-Stars, see how they're doing this year. No time for that? Well, I'll tell you that Sanchez is the only one who's actually playing right now. And he's not playing nearly as well as Neil Walker (the Pirates' current second baseman).

OK, maybe I'll give you Adam LaRoche. He's earning just $6 million this season, and he's having a better season than Garrett Jones. But Garrett Jones was one of the few good things about the Pirates last year. Would anyone have argued, three months ago, that the Pirates would have been better off with LaRoche? Particularly given the $5.5 million difference between their 2010 salaries?

That's most of what I wanted to say about that. Except it doesn't bother me when a team doesn't spend every last cent -- or every last $10 million -- the moment it arrives. I believe the Pirates are, in their fashion, going to spend what they've got on trying to improve their fortunes on the field. Wealthy men don't buy into baseball teams to make money. With the exception of the New York Yankees and perhaps another franchise or two, that just wouldn't be a smart business decision.

(For a more extensive and Pirates-centric look at the leak, see Pittsburgh Lumber Co.'s report.)

Bucs have help on the way, but enough?

June, 15, 2010
Rumors suggest that the Pirates are about to summon top prospect Pedro Alvarez to the majors; Ron Cook suggests that perhaps only Alvarez can save Neal Huntington's job:

    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.

    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.


    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.

    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.

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

    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.

Huntington's probably safe for the moment, so I don't see any point in rushing Alvarez.

Which isn't to suggest Alvarez doesn't deserve a promotion. He's played well in Triple-A this season, while Andy LaRoche, the incumbent at third base, is suffering through yet another awful season. But LaRoche and third base is far from the Pirates' only problem. They've got middle infielders who can't hit, Lastings Milledge looks finished, and Paul Maholm is their only decent starting pitcher.

With Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker, the Pirates do have the makings of a decent (and exceptionally young) lineup. But gosh, they sure seem a long way from their first winning season since 1992. Alvarez is going to help Huntington only if Alvarez keys a second-half surge that gets the Pirates out of the basement. Fortunately, the Pirates have regression to the mean and Astros in Houston on their side.

Pirates stuck with starters they've got

April, 23, 2010
Amazing what a few lousy starts in April can do to your team ERA, huh? Dejan Kovacevic on what the Pirates can (or can't) do about their awful numbers:
Of signing a free agent, Huntington said, "By the time we could sign and stretch out one of the free agent options, we'll have internal solutions."

Of a possible trade: "No one has excess starting pitching they are willing to give up. Additionally, it makes little sense to panic and give up a legitimate prospect to acquire a short-term-fit, fringy, bottom-of-the-rotation starter that might be an incremental performance upgrade."

It is hard to imagine at this point what would not represent an upgrade over the Pirates' current rotation, with mild exceptions for Zach Duke and Paul Maholm. As Huntington indicated, few teams go legitimately five deep, but this staff has yet to firm up more than two, if that many.

That said, there also cannot be many teams struggling this much with the No. 5 starter.

Daniel McCutchen was hit hard yet again in the epic loss Thursday, six runs on eight hits, including home runs by Prince Fielder and Ryan Braun, over 3 2/3 innings. His ERA through three abbreviated starts is 14.73, exactly as it was before the first pitch, and opponents are batting .360 off him with five home runs in just 11 innings.

He is a virtual lock to be optioned back to Indianapolis, and he seemed aware of that after the game as part of a visibly emotional interview session with reporters.

Huntington's confident about Ross Ohlendorf returning soon to the rotation, and he's pretty sure that Charlie Morton will pitch better (with a 16.55 ERA, he'll pitch better just by falling out of bed before his next start). The bottom line, though, is that when you know you're going to finish last (or close to last), there's little sense in spending blood or treasure on one more stopgap. You go to war with the guys you've got, and you hope that prospects Brad Lincoln and Tim Alderson -- first-round draft picks, both -- are ready to contribute at some point between now and next summer.

Things really will get better, if only because they can't get worse. But this just isn't a decent rotation, and never really had a chance to be.

Meanwhile, McCutchen is just another great example of the fungibility of No. 5 starters (or if you prefer, another, lesser example of my lousy prognosticating). Here's what I wrote about McCutchen just a few weeks ago:
He'd better be a better pitcher this year, because last year he was really, really lucky to post that 4.21 ERA in his six starts. In McCutchen's defense, in 43 career Triple-A starts he's 20-15 with a 3.72 ERA and an excellent ratio (4.45) of strikeouts to walks. Of course, most people think pitchers who rely on changeups have a rougher transition to the Show than other sorts.

All of which is moot, for the moment. As long as Kevin Hart's battling Steve Blass Disease, McCutchen can throw as many changeups as he likes. Because with Charlie Morton ahead of him, and Hart and a cast of nobodies filling the rotation down in Indianapolis, McCutchen might be the safest No. 5 starter in the National League.

Safe? Really, Rob? If McCutchen isn't the first No. 5 starter to lose his job, he's close. Of course, a 14.73 ERA is funny that way, especially when it's accompanied by more walks than strikeouts. Last season in the majors, McCutchen gave up six home runs in 36 innings; this year, five homers in 11 innings. McCutchen and Morton will pitch better. But it'll be mostly Triple-A hitters who have to suffer their wrath.

Union's OK with Pirates' spending

April, 20, 2010
The union's take on the Pirates? As Rob Biertempfel writes, it might not be what you think:
The Pirates' Opening Day payroll of $34.9 million is the lowest in the majors, but it did not sound alarm bells at the players' union.

Earlier this month, the Pirates sent the Major League Baseball Players Association an annual statement detailing how the franchise spent its portion of revenue-sharing funds. MLBPA executive director Michael Weiner on Monday gave grudging approval of the Pirates' budget-conscious strategy for rebuilding the team.

"Are we happy with the current state of the Pirates' payroll? Of course we'd like to see it higher," Weiner said at Penn State's Dickinson School of Law. "Is it tough to see when they sign a player like Nate McLouth and then trade him? Is it tough to see some of the other things they've done? Sure. But, to date, we have been convinced the Pirates have a plan.

"You guys (in Pittsburgh) have as beautiful a ballpark as there is in the major leagues. You've got a phenomenal fan base and history. (Ownership has) a plan in place, so we'll continue to monitor it. We've been satisfied so far."

With the CBA expiring after the 2011 season, it's encouraging to see the union's head honcho avoiding an easy chance to pile up a couple of points in the newspapers. It should be encouraging for Pirates fans, too, because this essentially tells us the franchise's owners aren't simply lining their pockets. As long as the revenue-sharing and central-fund money is getting plowed back into the franchise -- whether it's major league salaries, signing bonuses, or the construction of academies in Timbuktu -- neither the union nor anyone has much of a case.

Sure, the union would love a stipulation that forces the teams to spend everything on payroll -- the union cares not the tiniest iota about minor leaguers or future professionals -- but that's one concession the players have not yet wrung from the owners (and they never will).

I wasn't planning to lambaste the union. They do a lot of things I don't care for, but then a union's not supposed to care what we think. A union exists for one purpose, and this happens to be one of the best unions that's ever unioned. And I'm heartened by Michael Weiner's public willingness to let the Pirates spend their money on the future.

Is Pirates' young talent good enough?

March, 29, 2010
You know how you know things aren't going well for you? When you're thrown overboard for Hayden Penn. That's what happened to Brandon Moss today. Jenifer Langosch:

    Brandon Moss' time with the Pirates is likely over. The Pirates designated the [outfielder] for assignment on Monday in order to clear a spot on the 40-man roster for right-hander Hayden Penn. The club claimed Penn off waivers from the Marlins. Moss was out of options.

    The Pirates gave Moss every chance to solidify his spot in the organization. They made him the team's starting right fielder last year, only to watch Moss hit .236 and lose the starting job by midseason. The club planned to bring him back in a bench role this year, but Moss' 3-for-37 spring did nothing to help management's confidence in Moss being able to serve as an effective pinch hitter.

    He was acquired in July 2008 from the Red Sox as part of the trade that sent Jason Bay to Boston.

I've generally counseled patience with the current regime, but they've got to start hitting on some of their trades. When the Pirates traded Jason Bay, they also got Bryan Morris, Andy LaRoche, and Craig Hansen. Morris posted a 5.57 ERA in Class A last season. Hansen's now got a 6.34 ERA in 94 major league innings, and is out until May with a shoulder injury. Andy LaRoche started at third base for the Pirates last year and will do the same this year, but they're still waiting for him to hit like they (and I) thought he would.

When the Pirates traded Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady to the Yankees, they got Daniel McCutchen, Jose Tabata, Jeff Karstens, and Ross Ohlendorf. Ohlendorf and McCutchen are both slated for the rotation. Ohlendorf pitched well in the majors last season, and McCutchen -- who's 27 -- looked real good in Triple-A. Karstens is probably toast.

When the Pirates traded Nate McLouth to the Braves, they got Gorkys Hernandez, Jeff Locke, and Charlie Morton. Morton's been awesome in Triple-A; in the majors, not so much. Locke's a Grade C prospect with a good left arm. Hernandez is a good center fielder who probably won't ever hit enough to play regularly.

When the Pirates traded Adam LaRoche to the Red Sox, they got Argenis Diaz and Hunter Strickland. Diaz is a good-field/no-hit shortstop; Strickland is a young lefty with good control who hasn't pitched in advanced Class A yet.

When the Pirates traded Freddy Sanchez to the Giants, they got Tim Alderson, a big right-hander who doesn't throw hard and hasn't pitched above AA. When they traded Jack Wilson and Ian Snell to the Mariners, they got three nondescript (so far) minor leaguers, plus Ronny Cedeno, who's playing shortstop, and Jeff Clement, who's taking over at first base. Clement's 26, and there's still a chance that he'll hit enough to play that position. Cedeno's .280 career OBP is an out-sucking black hole in the lineup.

It's too early to pass judgment. But the Pirates have traded a lot of good players for a lot of younger players -- 14, plus the products of trades I haven't checked -- and to this point they really haven't seen enough results on the field. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Bob Smizik says everyone should be fired if the Pirates don't start winning, and soon.

I wouldn't go that far. But if more of the young players don't show great promise this summer, it'll be fair to start asking serious questions.

No. 5 Starter Watch: Pirates

March, 25, 2010
Rest easy, Nation. All those burning questions about the Piratical rotation have finally been answered. Alan Dell:

    All Daniel McCutchen wanted was an opportunity. He never asked for anything else, though he knew in his line of work promises can’t be kept.

    When he began spring training, the Pittsburgh Pirates right-hander was told he was going to battle Kevin Hart for the final spot in the pitching rotation — nothing more, nothing else.

    The 27-year-old never heard anything else until Monday when he was named the fifth starter and Hart was sent to Triple-A Indianapolis to find his control.


    McCutchen says spring training numbers don’t mean much, but in his case they do. In four Grapefruit League innings,

    he struck out three without issuing a walk. In 12 total innings (including minor league outings), he allowed one walk. On the flip side, Hart walked 13 in 4 2/3 innings.

    “I have been pounding the strike zone and throughout my career I haven’t walked many guys,” McCutchen said. “My goal in camp was to show that I am all about forcing contact and getting guys out within the zone. My philosophy here is that even if they hit it hard we have a great outfield.”

    McCutchen made his major league debut last year when he started six games for the Pirates and compiled a 4.21 ERA in 36.1 innings. He says he is a much better pitcher now.

    “In the last couple of weeks, I felt good with my breaking ball and my slider has gotten a lot better, which will elevate my game,” he said. “My change has always been there. It has been a big plus pitch for me. I got a lot of outs last year in the big leagues with it. I am thinking of adding another breaking ball pitch.”

He'd better be a better pitcher this year, because last year he was really, really lucky to post that 4.21 ERA in his six starts. In McCutchen's defense, in 43 career Triple-A starts he's 20-15 with a 3.72 ERA and an excellent ratio (4.45) of strikeouts to walks. Of course, most people think pitchers who rely on changeups have a rougher transition to the Show than other sorts.

All of which is moot, for the moment. As long as Kevin Hart's battling Steve Blass Disease, McCutchen can throw as many changeups as he likes. Because with Charlie Morton ahead of him, and Hart and a cast of nobodies filling the rotation down in Indianapolis, McCutchen might be the safest No. 5 starter in the National League.

As a Pirate, McLouth was flying blind

March, 5, 2010
In the middle of Nate McLouth (and his chronicler) ripping the Pirates for doing what they really had to do -- trading veterans like McLouth and Nady and all the rest of them -- there's this little nugget:
    Last season, McLouth hit .256 with 20 homers and 70 RBI. He expects to put up better stats this year after getting contact lenses in the offseason.

    "It's kind of like going from watching standard definition television to watching HD," he said. "I notice a big difference, both seeing pitches and in the outfield."

    McLouth said his vision could have been corrected years ago, but he never bothered to visit an optometrist. The Pirates checked his vision each year during spring training, but never detected any problems.

    "A blind man could pass that test they do," McLouth said, noting it basically consisted of reading an eye chart.

If you work for the Pittsburgh Pirates, please take a deep breath.

Take another one. Okay?

If McLouth is being unfair, I admire your restraint.

If McLouth is being fair, you might start figuring out who to blame. Because if McLouth hits 30 homers and plays (actual) Gold Glove defense for the Braves this season, the Pirates might have to fire somebody.

Young Pirate might not be so young

February, 8, 2010
Remember a couple of Julys ago, when the Pirates traded a couple of veterans to the Yankees and got four prospects in return? The plum was Jose Tabata, who was then struggling in Double-A but was just 19 and had impressed scouts since signing with the Yankees at 16.

Or not:
    The Pirates are not publicly disputing Tabata's age, and yet ...

    "All of the documentation he has used to obtain his visa from the U.S. government and his passport from the Venezuelan government indicates his reported age is accurate," Huntington said in an e-mail to the Tribune-Review. "Apart from unfounded speculation, there is nothing to indicate his age any different than reported. My point is that while we have reason to doubt his reported age, it is a non-issue to us."

    Even if Tabata should have three or four more candles on his birthday cake, he's still considered a top prospect. But how good he is, to a degree, does depend on his age.

Huntington is whistling past the graveyard.

According to his passport, Tabata turned 21 last August. At the time, he was playing for Triple-A Indianapolis. He wasn't playing particularly well, but well enough for a newly minted 21-year-old. If he turned 23 or 24, though? Well then he's just another prospect who might or might not wind up with an everyday job someday.

Considering that the Pirates can't win without young players both cheap and good, and that Tabata was supposedly one of the youngest and the best of their young players, the notion that Tabata's age doesn't matter just isn't supportable. What the Pirates are trying to do, can be done. But the margin for error is exceptionally small. And trading for a 20-year-old who's actually 23 -- if that's what the Pirates did in 2008 -- was an error. Oh, and it would make what I wrote here look pretty silly.

Who's accountable in Pittsburgh?

January, 26, 2010
First, the intro to Dejan Kovacevic's interview with Pirates owner Bob Nutting, and then a couple of questions:

    A year ago, at the opening of the Pirates' Winter Caravan promotional tour here, the franchise's controlling owner, Bob Nutting, said of his expectations for 2009, "We're not going to accept an inferior performance," and he pledged accountability.

    The team's record fell from 67-95 to 62-99, and it grew worse after several veteran-for-prospect trades in June and July. Management and coaching staff remained almost entirely untouched.


    Question: You almost have to view 2009 as a bottoming out, don't you? You can't keep hovering around 62 or so wins and see that as progress, right?

    Answer: Oh, absolutely. We are going to win more games than last year. We are going to see improvement on the field in Pittsburgh, in terms of wins and loses. We have to.

    I said last year that was my expectation and, midway through the season, we clearly weren't seeing that. And the team took decisive action, made change. That's part of why you have the broader pool from which the pieces will come for 2010 and moving forward.

    Q: Can we expect to see accountability beyond changing the roster?

    A: I think, just as you saw accountability at the player level last year, ultimately, my job is very simple: It's to set the level of expectation to win games in Pittsburgh, period. And my tool to do that is to hold people accountable to reach this goal.

    I think I've done that effectively so far, and I believe everyone in the organization understands that the expectation is high.

It's far too early to talk about "accountability" in the Pirates' front office, considering that: 1) the men at the top have been in their positions for slightly more than two years, and 2) it's not like they've been making a bunch of stupid mistakes. Yeah, the Pirates nosedived after July, going 18-41 the rest of the way. In June and July, they traded Nate McLouth, Nyjer Morgan, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, and Adam LaRoche; that is, three-fourths of their infield and two-thirds of their outfield. And someone's supposed to be held accountable for the Pirates' record?

If all the prospects the Pirates have acquired in the past couple of years don't lead to a 70-win season in 2010 or '11, then we can start talking about accountability in the front office.