It takes balls to drop the bat and admire your home run when it's June 26th and you've only hit one other homer during the season.
Three years ago, a terrible Pirate team on an awful losing streak and a Royals team with the worst record in baseball combined to create a black hole of suck that nearly devoured baseball. Three years later, Allard Baird and Dave Littlefield are gone and both franchises are moving in the general direction of the light. This year, we celebrate the three-year anniversary of the worst series in baseball history/WHYGAVS semi-mainstream breakthrough with the Pirates and Royals playing at PNC Park. Thankfully, Kip Wells is nowhere near anyone this weekend.
Tonight, the Pirates send Virgil Vasquez out to the mound for his first appearance in black and gold to face off against Gil Meche. The Pirates are holding tenuously on to giving everyone a faint hope that they can finish .500. John Russell has even settled into a semi-regular starting lineup to mark the occasion. Vasquez probably isn't much better than a Josh Fogg/Jeff Karstens type player, but I suppose he's worth a shot if Ian Snell is going to be difficult.
Apparently, my decision to go see a movie tonight caused me to miss quite a Pirate game. There are still a few things I'd like to comment on.
Andrew McCutchen has, to this point, surpassed every single expectation I had for him when he was called up. He's been an electrifying presence on the Pirates since his callup; unlike anything we've had on the Pirates in years because of his young age. But of everything he's done, working Cliff Lee for a walk with the bases loaded in a one run game after falling behind 0-2 might be the single thing that's impressed me the most. How many 22 year-olds have the patience or eye to do that? How many players of any age?
That said, it also needs to be noted that his walk-off hit was set up entirely by Jack Wilson's heads up base running. With John Russell ejected, Gary Varsho somehow decided it was a good move to have his white-hot rookie bunt the winning run to third base with no one out. I can't speak for Varsho, but I know if I had to choose between having McCutchen bat with the winning run on second and Nyjer Morgan batting with the winning run on third, I'd take my chances with 'Cutch. Wilson followed the wheel play into third, though, and when 'Cutch didn't get a bunt down he stole the base, allowing Matt Herges to pitch to McCutchen and give up the game winning hit.
I've been trying to not get too excited about McCutchen because he's so young and at some point, he'll come back to earth and struggle a bit, but damn, it's hard to not be psyched about this kid.
Stepping away from the Ian Snell circus for a minute (and if you don't think it's a circus, check out the audio DK has posted at the PBC blog), there's actually a baseball game tonight. Cliff Lee and Ross Ohlendorf pitch tonight. Ohlendorf has been getting knocked around a bit lately, so it'd be nice to see him get back on track. Lee, meanwhile, is pitching pretty well, even if he's not anywhere near the level he was at when he won last year's AL Cy Young. Also worth noting is JR keeping Brandon Moss in the lineup, even with the lefty Lee on the mound. This is about the first time I can think of him doing that this year.
After Neal Huntington took to the press this morning to say Snell wouldn't be demoted, Snell's been optioned to Triple-A Indy this afternoon and Virgil Vasquez has been called up to take his place in the rotation. My guess is that Snell's stuff is good enough to dominate AAA pitching even with his infuriating nibbling, so I don't know what good this is going to do for him.
DK says details are to come and I'm interested to hear what Huntington has to say about this. I had the impression that his thinking lined up pretty well with this post of Charlie's from earlier today. Rocco DeMaro is saying that Snell is telling people he asked to be demoted, which might make some sense in context with Huntington's earlier remarks. Stay tuned.
UPDATE: DK updated his post to say Snell asked to be demoted last night, and in classic Ian Snell fashion, he comes across as a huge jackass.
His explanation basically came down to this: He sought a more positive environment: "Too much negativity. I want to be a positive person if I'm going to be here. I felt like I was going to be negative if I was going to be here, and I didn't want to ruin this team." He was asked to explain who actually made the call that he would go down: "I wasn't going to allow them to say what they want. I told them I wanted to go down. It's best for the team."I guess I'm reading between the lines a bit here, but I don't think Snell wants anything to do with the coaching staff in Pittsburgh. He's campaigning for a trade, and I think he's probably going to get it.
When discussing potential trade targets on the Pirates this year, mostly everyone hits the same highlights; Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, and maybe Ryan Doumit. LaRoche will be traded and the other three might, but for varying reasons, none of them are going to bring much of a return. There are two players on the team that will bring a little something in return, if Neal Huntington is really looking to bolster the farm system this summer. Those players are Zach Duke and Paul Maholm. Nearly every contender needs pitching as the deadline approaches, and lefties are sometimes an even more valuable commodity. According to CBS's Danny Knobler, some teams are already interested.
There are a million different ways to build a successful baseball team. As my dad is fond of saying, it's like solving a Rubik's Cube. You can start work on any side of it, but the side you turn first dictates the order the rest of the puzzle is solved. In baseball you can build around speed and defense, and that in turn requires a different sort of pitching staff and a different focus on offense. You can build a big team that kills the ball and ignores defense, but that needs a pitching staff that centers more on strikeouts than one on a pitching and defense team.
Money complicates this further. Let's look a few years into the future. The Pirates have Andrew McCutchen in center, Gorkys Hernandez/Robbie Grossman in left, Tony Sanchez behind the plate, Andy LaRoche at third, and probably Pedro Alvarez at first. We'll assume that they focus on defense at short and second, too, so they need another big bat to compliment the rest of the lineup and to get it, they have to go out and spend some money on a right fielder. Now, say we've got Brad Lincoln and maybe one of Morris/Owens/Locke at the top of the rotation and some unnamed, hypothetical decent third pitcher sitting in the three slot. We need to fill out the back end of the rotation, and Zach Duke is the exact pitcher we want there. He's left-handed, which plays into the defensive strength in left/center and away from Alvarez and whatever bopper we're trying to hide in right, he's likely affordable because of his ugly stretch early in his career with us and the fact that he doesn't have the stuff to ever overwhelm anyone. Given that he's only 26 now he could probably pitching exactly like he pitches now for ten more years.
Of course, the problem with this sort of thinking is that it counts chickens before they hatch. Who keeps a 3/4 starter around when the foundation isn't even laid yet? And if we clear guys like Duke out and build a rotation around fewer pitch-to-contact guys, then it's much easier to hide someone like Delwyn Young in the field.
It's impossible to know what Huntington's thinking right now, but he's got to be considering all the things we just went over above. Duke, however, (and Maholm, too, but Duke is pitching much better right now) is one of the first guys that Huntington has to deal with that will probably draw some interest in the next month or so, that might have a clearly defined role in the long-term future of the Pirates, which could either help us extract more from someone in a trade or make Huntington less willing to deal him. I don't know what Huntington is going to do with him, but whatever he does do should go a long ways towards clearing up his long-term plans.
Let's look at this game as the polar opposite of the first game in this series. On Monday, we played a really bad game, but that fact was overshadowed by a dramatic ninth inning rally and near comeback. On Tuesday, we played a really good one, but a bad ninth inning by Steven Jackson took some of the polish off of it.
Before the Jackson debacle (which I admittedly did not see; Wednesday night is trivia night and I saw at the bar that the Indians shaved the lead down, but that was all I knew until I got home), we got a solid start from Zach Duke and an offense that actually piled runs on Pavano when he clearly didn't have it tonight, starting with the three-run second, which was mostly a bunch of singles strung together, and punctuating it with the six-run fourth, that saw a couple big hits from Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss, who've both been struggling a bit of late (though Moss has shown signs of breaking out of that slump), and a homer from Jason Jaramillo after Pavano was removed.
That was plenty for Zach Duke, even without Adam LaRoche's homer, and it's hard to fault JR for getting him out after six innings and only 94 pitches, since he's been stretched out quite a bit this year. He still picked up his eighth win of the year and I know that wins are meaningless, but it still kind of boggles my mind a little. He's got to be this team's All-Star right now (actually, it'll probably be Freddy Sanchez again), and the fact that he would actually deserve that honor after all the crap he's worked through in past few years really says something about the guy, I think.
Maybe beating up on Carl Pavano isn't that impressive, but this is a team that's been shut down by Mike Hampton repeatedly this year. We just made David Huff look like a young, left-handed Greg Maddux one night ago. The best thing you can ask for when you're in a slump like the Pirates is a laugher, and they got one tonight, final score notwithstanding.
I don't have a whole lot to say to preview tonight's game. We're playing like crap right now, and we're probably the team that a struggling veteran like Carl Pavano wants to see the most. We do have Zach Duke on the mound at home tonight, where he's at his best, and Pavano being right-handed allows for JR to actually get one of his hottest bats (Brandon Moss) in the lineup. Beyond that, we just have to start playing better. There's not really much else to it.
Some interesting news is cropping up on the Latin American front, as Kiley McDaniel, who's covering the Latin American market for Baseball Prospectus this year, reported early this afternoon that the Pirates had come to an early agreement with Chesler Cuthbert, a third baseman from Nicaragua, for a $750,000 signing bonus that's expected to be announced on July 2nd. In an earlier article (both links are BP subscribers only), McDaniel rated Cuthbert as the #11 in terms of likely signing bonuses this summer, so he's clearly one of the more sought after talents in Latin America this summer.
What followed McDaniel's original article was an interesting exchange that highlights the real power behind some of the new social networking tools on the internet. Both McDaniel (@kileymcd) and ESPN's reporter covering the Latin American market, Jorge Arangure (@jorgearangure) have Twitter accounts and they began discussing Cuthbert this afternoon, with Arangure tweeting that the Royals were the favorites to sign Cuthbert, that the Pirates often visit Nicaragua and their presence there last week didn't necessarily portend a deal, and that it seems unlikely that they'll spend more on two players this year (Cuthbert and Sano) than they have in the entire previous history of their Latin American investigations. McDaniel responded by saying that he didn't disagree, but he'd heard Cuthbert attached to us for $750,000 in several places, and he'd had another call tonight that said the same thing.
The result is an interesting conversation between two of the more mainstream guys that cover this market about one of the prospects, unfolding in real time and for anyone to read. This makes two things pretty clear to me. One is that the internet is awesome, the second is that there's a ton of uncertainty in this market. Arangure and McDaniel both have plenty of contacts in the Latin American scouting world and they weren't really arguing over this, they were agreeing that they had come upon different, conflicting information and that the other could be right. As much as we can read and speculate and talk about this sort of thing, there's really no way of knowing what's going to happen on July 2nd.