Some salty language that isn't safe for work, unless your boss is a baseball fan ...
Today is the first day of official workouts at Pirate City and I feel like an overstimulated little kid reading everything I possibly can about what's happening in camp. It sounds like pretty much the whole team is there right now, even though the position players don't officially report until Monday.
There's a couple of articles about Pedro Alvarez up at Pirates.com and the PG. He's been in Bradenton for two weeks trying to get back into shape after putting on a few pounds when he was laid up with tendinitis in both his knees. I wonder how much the public outcry over his figure motivated this.
Jen Langosch has some odds and ends on her blog. Ever wonder when the players shoot the Q&As and goofy scoreboard pieces that air at PNC all year? Right now, apparently.
It looks like the new PiratesReport.com has launched, with John Perrotto as the main writer (this is what he left the BCT for). There's a bunch of new content there, including a story about Brandon Moss and Phil Dumatrait's recoveries.
Kevin Goldstein's put together his top 100 prospects in all of baseball for BP. Pedro Alvarez is #4, Andrew McCutchen is #25, and Jose Tabata is #91.
BP 2009 is now shipping, which always excites nerds like me. And the Hardball Times 2009 Preview (you know, the book I contributed to) shipped last week. If you're curious how high the stack of baseball preview books I acquire each spring, the answer is, "you don't want to know."
In the self-indulgence column, I wrote a Pirate preview for the Spring Training '09 website, which has similar features written by bloggers for every team, and I wrote about the three prospects most likely to impact the Pirates in 2009 for FanHouse.
Does anyone feel an overwhelming urge to watch Major League right now?
The Road to 17 is a look at each losing season that the Pirates have had since their last playoff appearance in 1992. The object is not to wallow in the misery of the Pirates, but instead remember just what it is that makes us Pirate fans in the first place. Every team has their great moments, the Pirates' are just fewer and further between. Today, we hit the sixteenth stop on the Road to 17: 2008
Writing these last few parts on the Road to 17 have been weird, because it's pretty hard to be nostalgic about things that have happened so recently. 2008 just ended!
For the last few years of the Dave Littlefield era, all I really wanted to see was for DL to give up on a year or two, embrace the fact that rebuilding was a long and painful process, and start building from the bottom up. That's what Huntington did in his first full year as general manager and I've got to say that while I'm really encouraged by the draft and the team's new committment to Latin America, the Pirates were no fun to watch at some points last year.
Through the entire losing streak, I'm not sure the Pirates have had a worse month than August of 2008. We knew going in that the schedule was brutal and that was before we traded Jason Bay and Xavier Nady away. That resulted in a month where the Pirates lost 21 of 28 games and only scored 82 runs. 82 runs in 28 games is 2.93 runs per game and given the 150 that they allowed, that means that they got outscored by an average of 5.36 to 2.93 in August. I'm struggling to even find the phrase I want to use to describe that sort of thing and I keep coming back to, "That's just so bad," so I'm going to stick with that.
What I hope 2008 is remembered as is the year that we got Pedro Alvarez into the system. We went through a brutal cycle with him this year; there was disbelief that would be drafted and elation when he was, disbelief he would sign and elation when he did, and finally disbelief we'd get the grievance filed by Boras resolved and mostly happiness with some grumbling when he did. And if he tanks, none of that will ever be worth it. If he turns into the hitter we think he can be, well, it will all have been worth it.
Really, things like the draft and the awful August make 2008 a really two-sided year. The Pirates finally got some bats with Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit breaking out and joining Jason Bay and Xavier Nady, but Bay and Nady were traded. The Pirates' pitching staff was as bad as anyone can ever remember it being, but they spent $9 million on the draft broke ground on a new academy in the Dominican. This is how it's going to be over the next couple years, I'm afraid, but at least we started to get a foundation down in 2008.
Of course, it would be unfair to remember 2008 without one of the wildest games in Pirate history. I'm not talking about the huge comeback against the Cardinals in July, I'm talking about Opening Night in Atlanta. Thanks in large part to a three-run homer by Nate McLouth in the eighth inning, the Bucs held a 9-4 lead going into the the bottom of the ninth, looking to get John Russell his first big league win in fairly easy fashion. After Damaso Marte struggled, Matt Capps walked two batters, gave up a single, and still had victory firmly in hand when he induced a two-out pop-up from Brian McCann that somehow fell harmlessly between Jason Bay and Nate McLouth, neither of whom seemed to have any idea where the ball was landing. That tied up the game and it stayed tied until Xavier Nady hit a three-run homer in the 11th, but the Pirates nearly blew that lead as well in the bottom of the inning before Franquellis Osoria finally shut the door on the 12-11 win. I'm sure every manager remembers their first win, but I think only John Russell has nightmares about his.
In the short term, 2008 will be remembered more for the two July trades than anything else. A lot has been written about those trades in a lot of places, but right now the only way to look at them is like this: Xavier Nady and Jason Bay were not going to be a part of the Pirate team that breaks this losing streak but Andy LaRoche and Jose Tabata could both play important roles on that hypothetical future team. We'll be a lot more certain if they will or not after the 2009 season (and given the huge upside and huge risks of both players, it could really go either way), but right now the potential is still there for both of them and that's what matters.
If the Pirates are indeed on a road right now, they spent the better part of 15 years driving in the wrong direction. In 2008, they realized they were going the wrong direction, but they realized in the dark on a country road with nothing around them for miles. Rather than turning around, they've decided the only way to get where they're going is to keep driving in the wrong direction while trying to figure out where they are and what they're going to do when they eventually come to an intersection.
Have you ever been lost before? I don't mean kind of unsure if you missed an exit or not, I mean full-blown middle of the night on a country road with nothing around it for miles and you're not even sure why the road exists or where it's going and you don't have cell reception and you're driving and your friend next to you has a roadmap out and you're trying to figure out where you really might be and what you need to do if you ever see a turn on this road but you're honestly not even sure it's coming. The only thing you know for sure is that you've been driving down this stupid road for way too long and you can't turn around because it'll take you longer to get back to where you were than it will for you to get where you're going.
That's where the Pirates are right now and it took until 2008 to even get a map out.
Hey, Tom Gorzelanny was hurt last year! Who knew? Oh. Everyone.
Dejan is laid up with a back problem (here's to a quick recovery, DK) and Chuck Finder will be the backup beat writer this year. Did Paul Meyer retire?
Meanwhile, PITCHERS AND CATCHERS REPORT TOMORROW!!! I don't know why I'm still excited about this kind of thing, but I am. We'll celebrate tomorrow with the final Road to 17 installment.
UPDATED to add that I made a poll about the bullpen and it's in the left sidebar. So let me know what you think.
There's an interesting article on Pirates.com right now about the situation the Pirates face with the bullpen, having several pitchers that are out of options on top of Donnie Veal, who's got to stick with the big club as a Rule 5 pick. Sean Burnett, Craig Hansen, and Phil Dumatrait are all out of options, which creates a the awkward situation of having way too many bad arms to fit into one impending disaster of a bullpen. Let's look at the Pirates' pitching situation right now:
- Paul Maholm
- Ian Snell
- Tom Gorzelanny
- Zach Duke
- Jeff Karstens
- Ross Ohlendorf
Relievers (mortal lock to make the team division)
- John Grabow
- Matt Capps
- Tyler Yates
Bullpen (out of options division)
- Sean Burnett
- Craig Hansen
- Phil Dumatrait
Guy that will make the team even if he sucks in spring training
- Donnie Veal
So let's assume the Pirates break camp with 12 pitchers. There will be an odd man out among Duke, Karstens, and Ohlendorf. The Pirates really seem to like Ohlendorf and there's no use in sending him back to AAA right now. I'm betting he makes the rotation. I'm guessing Karstens does, too (at least to start the year), because Duke is too similar to Maholm and Gorzelanny. So we throw Duke into the bullpen mix.
Grabow, Capps, and Yates make the team no matter what and unless Donnie Veal looks like Ricky Vaughn sans glasses, he's making the club because there's no way this club is giving up a guy with such upside based on spring training. So five starters, plus Veal, Grabow, Capps, and Yates makes nine. If we push Grabow into a set-up role, Burnett is probably valuable as a LOOGY unless Veal is dominant, in which case Burnett becomes expendable. I'm guessing Burnett stays, so that's ten. That brings us to Hansen, who's got two things going for him. First off, he's right-handed and the Pirates' pen is somehow short on righties and secondly, he would almost certainly be claimed by someone if he were put through waivers. Think Huntington's giving up on a 25-year-old with an electric arm that he just traded for? Nope.
So the choice in the 'pen is probably going to come down to Duke and Dumatrait. I think Dumatrait would clear waivers because his health is a big question and despite every wonderful thing that's been written about him, I'm not sure he's that good. That's probably the best option for the club, to send him to AAA to see how he heals and give him a chance to start.
Of course, this doesn't even consider someone like Evan Meek, who I think is good enough to be in the 'pen to start the year, or Jesse Chavez, who's at least interesting enough to merit a look this spring. Veal pitching well could open the door for a Grabow trade, but I doubt that will happen before the season starts. The part that baffles me is this: I'm almost completely certain that the Pirates' bullpen is going to be awful this year. How can they have too many arms?
Just saw (via MLB Trade Rumors) that the Pirates are reportedly one of the teams interested in Bobby Abreu. That's great. They should be. Abreu is a great guy to both help the team out and bring a return at the deadline or in the way of draft picks after the season is over. Just don't count on it actually happening. Look at the other teams that Heyman lists: the Angels, Braves, Mets, and Reds. Three contenders, two sad sack NL Central teams. Unless the Pirates are offering twice what the contending teams are offering, Abreu's only taking their calls to try and play their offer off of one from a team he's interested in playing in to try and grab a little more cash. Abreu might not sign for much, but I'll believe he'll be a Pirate the day he pulls on a jersey and not a day before.
I still remember the day the Ken Caminiti news broke. June, 2002. Without the internet as a major vehicle to drive the news at that time, the allegations hit the airwaves early in the week and on Thursday, Sports Illustrated came out with its memorable cover, a baseball crossed by syringes. I remember literally waiting for that week's SI to come out to read the story about Caminiti and to finally get the scoop for myself. I read the story and Caminiti's words inside it in complete disbelief:
"It's no secret what's going on in baseball. At least half the guys are using steroids. They talk about it. They joke about it with each other. The guys who want to protect themselves or their image by lying have that right. Me? I'm at the point in my career where I've done just about every bad thing you can do. I try to walk with my head up. I don't have to hold my tongue. I don't want to hurt teammates or friends. But I've got nothing to hide.
"If a young player were to ask me what to do," Caminiti continued, "I'm not going to tell him it's bad. Look at all the money in the game: You have a chance to set your family up, to get your daughter into a better school.... So I can't say, 'Don't do it,' not when the guy next to you is as big as a house and he's going to take your job and make the money."
To that point, the only player I ever had really connected with steroids in my mind was Barry Bonds, and a nagging voice in my head always told me the only reason I thought Bonds was on steroids was because I wanted him to be on steroids due to my personal dislike of him.
I was 17 at the time and I was disgusted by what I read in that story. How could those players do that to the fans? To me? As a kid I obsessed over players like Ruth, Gehrig, Aaron, Johnson, Koufax, Williams, Clemente, Stargell, Kiner, and Wagner; those guys were my mythology. I read baseball encyclopedias for fun. I constantly got in trouble with the librarian at the Shenango Valley Library for taking out too many books on the same subject (which I still think is a stupid rule). In 2002, I felt like this story was depriving me of my own Olympus of baseball players. Like most Pirate fans my age, I grew up hearing stories about the amazing Roberto Clemente, about the '79 World Series team that Pops and the Cobra pulled out of a hole to defy the odds and win a Championship. I heard my uncle rave about the way Al Kaline swung the bat and patrolled the outfield. How could I possibly talk about these steroid addled players with such reverence to my own children in the future?
That was seven years ago. Yesterday, when debating the A-Rod story with my fellow FanHousers, I wrote this:
And I'm sorry, but I hate the "I don't want to see Aaron lose his record to a bunch of cheaters" argument. Baseball evolves over time. How can you tell me that the 100-meter dash world record has been lowered by so much time since Babe Ruth retired, but only two guys have hit more home runs? Pitchers and hitters are constantly getting better, but they keep each other in check and it creates the illusion that somehow, we can compare Babe Ruth in 1924 to A-Rod in 2009. I honestly think that the '27 Yankees would get smoked by every single big league team today 9 times out of 10 ... just because these eras seem comparable doesn't mean that they actually are.
I understand what a bold statement that is and it might seem like I'm making that point to argue for arguments sake, but I can assure you I'm not. But after I wrote that, I realized that my 17 year old self would want to punch my 24 year old self in the face for saying it. Is that really what I believe? (Yes, yes it is.) Do I think that because I think it's true or because the combination of being a Pirate fan and a lab rat has made me so hopelessly cynical that I'll never enjoy anything the way I used to enjoy baseball? That question is harder to answer.
The truth is this: what I love about baseball are not numbers. I use numbers a lot and this blog can sometimes be analytical, but that's because that's who I am. What I truly love about baseball are the stories it's created. I don't love Ted Williams' 521 home runs or his .406 average in 1941; I love that he could feel when pine tar made his bat too heavy, I love that when teams started shifting on him, he used a heavier bat to hit the ball into the holes in the shift, I love that the guy had such amazing eyesight that he was a fighter pilot in World War II. I don't love Lou Gehrig's 1995 RBIs, I love that he could've hit five home runs in a game if only a teammate hadn't mistaken a home run for a flyout and run off the base paths, allowing Gehrig to pass him and costing him a home run. I love that even faced with an uncertain future and a disease that robbed him of all of his amazing talent, he still considered himself the luckiest man on the face of the earth. I never cared how far Mickey Mantle actually hit a baseball, I only care that he hit a ball so far that people still talk about it 50 years later. I don't love the fact that Roberto Clemente had 3,000 hits, but the idea that one of the most decent men to ever play the sport somehow hit one of the game's magic numbers on the nose, and shortly afterwards stepped on to an overloaded plane and gave up his own life trying to help someone else is pure magic.
Who cares how many home runs Barry Bonds hit? Who will ever forget that his dad used to throw him tennis balls with numbers scrawled on them and told him to only swing at the even numbers? Or the way managers were so afraid of him that they'd walk him regardless of the situation? Or the villian he created? Who can forget Mark McGwire's rush to embrace his son after hitting his 62nd home run? Tell me he cheated, but don't tell me he's a bad person. What about a tired Pedro Martinez coming out of the bullpen in Game 5 of the 1999 ALDS to spin six shut-out innings against one of the best offenses of the 1990s? What about Rob Mackowiak celebrating the birth of his son with two of the most memorable home runs in PNC Park's short history?
Sure, the numbers are part of that mythology. But doesn't the steroid era glorify some of them? Joe DiMaggio hit in 56 straight games and no amount of HGH or Winstrol could help anyone top that. Roger Clemens did some amazing things on the mound, but Greg Maddux won one more game than he did and no one, not even Sandy Koufax, dominated quite like Pedro Martinez did in a pure hitter's era. We still have numbers, we'll just have to change the way we value them.
Sports, and baseball in particular, have always been about finding an edge. Babe Ruth swung with a uppercut! Some (but not all!) players in the 60s and 70s took greenies! Gaylord Perry threw a spitball! Tommy John got part of his shoulder put in his elbow! Just because science has advanced cheating doesn't mean that it invented it. All that ever really matters is that the playing field is level and for the most part, it really has been. The Ranger teams that played early this decade might have been juiced, but they weren't winning World Series because of it. The A's teams in the late 80s and early 90s might have been steroid pioneers, but they really only stood out above the rest of the league for three years and in those three years, they won one World Series. It took a while, but baseball tests for steroids now and so long as steroid abuse remains illegal, they should. That doesn't mean players will stop trying to find ways around the tests, but with the money and fame involved, can you blame them? They only reason past players didn't take steroids is because they weren't available and that's just a fact.
If you love baseball, you love (or at least love to hate) cheaters and jerks. Ty Cobb the racist and Babe Ruth the womanizer went right into the Hall of Fame with Honus Wagner and Christy Matthewson. The villification of Pete Rose has made him more famous than induction in the Hall would've. If I have a son that tries to emulate Roger Clemens or Barry Bonds, I will consider myself to have failed as a father and that has nothing to do with steroids.
All the focus right now is on the numbers, but did Hank Aaron invalidate Babe Ruth? Did Pete Rose make Ty Cobb's feats less impressive? Did Nolan Ryan eclipse Cy Young or Sandy Koufax? No, and just like the earliest generations of the game live on, so will Aaron and Maris and Rose and Ryan, no matter how many strikeouts or hits or home runs modern players rack up. The true allure of baseball has never been the numbers themselves, but rather the lore -- the myths, the heroes, the villians -- that the numbers have created. And steroids will never change that.
Coming off of a rough 1993 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 season, hope still springs eternal in Bradenton. Pitchers and catchers report on Friday and on Saturday, manager Jim Leyland Gene Lamont Lloyd McClendon Jim Tracy John Russell will hold the first practice with pitching coach Ray Miller Pete Vuckovich Spin Williams Jim Colborn Jeff Andrews Joe Kerrigan.
While general manager Cam Bonifay Dave Littlefield Neal Huntington insists that every pitcher will have to earn a spot in the rotation, the early focus will certainly be on working with Paul Wagner Esteban Loaiza Jason Schmidt Kris Benson Kip Wells Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell to improve upon their disappointing performances last season.
When the position players report, all eyes will be on Freddy Garcia Chad Hermansen Andy LaRoche after his struggles at the plate put a damper on his ascent to the Majors. Still, the club expects Jacob Brumfield Trey Beamon Jermaine Allensworth Adrian Brown Chris Duffy Rajai Davis Nyjer Morgan to infuse the club with an exciting dose of excitement and speed and hustle.
While pundits are expecting yet another losing season for the Pirates, the steady returning veteran presence of Denny Neagle Jason Kendall Kevin Young Brian Giles Jason Bay Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit along with Leyland Lamont McClendon Tracy Russell's insistence that the team will stress good, fundamental baseball this spring, improving young players, and pixie dust, perhaps 1994 1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000 2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009 will be the year that things finally turn around for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
We could spend hours trying to figure out what Zach Duke did in 2005 that he hasn't done since then and what that might have to do with his success that year and his lack of success since then, but Duke's story is an easy one to figure out: he doesn't just doesn't miss enough bats. In his rookie year, Duke struck out more than 6 batters per 9 innings, since then his K/9 rates have been 4.89, 3.44, and 4.23. Check out the K/9 leaderboard for qualified starters in 2006, 2007 (Duke didn't qualify due to his injury, but you can see where Duke's 3.44 would fit), and 2008.
That said, Duke was really a lot better last year than his 5-14 record suggests. Many of his peripherals match up pretty closely with his 2006 season, which everyone mostly agreed wasn't great, but wasn't exactly unexpected. The reason I'm pointing this out is because I think a lot of people expect the Yankee trio to boot Duke out of the rotation this year and I don't think that that's a given by any means. In both 2006 and 2008, Duke's batting average on balls in play against was .327. That's a good 30 points higher than the league average and a lot of that can be contributed to the Pirates' defensive failings. Using the same PMR conversion to runs that I've been using, Duke lost more than a tenth of a run of ERA to the Pirates' defense this year.
What always gets me about Duke is that he's supposed to be a finesse pitcher, but his control isn't all that great. His strikeout rates are always low, but his walk rates aren't particularly low to match. The only season when he's had a K/BB ratio better than 2:1 was that rookie year. I think that it's certainly possible for a pitcher to be an adequate starter while striking out less than 5 hitters/9 innings, but if you're allowing hitters to put that many balls in play, you've got to minimize the number of free passes you're giving out.
It's hard to write a lot more about Duke, because he's really one of the more scrutinized pitchers in the rotation. I will say that people (myself included) do tend to way over or underestimate Duke's actual value. There's one crowd that finds him completely worthless because of his terrible record last year and his awful 2007 season. There's another crowd that still thinks he can find the 2005 magic and turn into an ace again. I'm quite guilty of this as well. I mean, I just wrote a bunch trying to sell you on Duke not being as bad as he pitched last year, but where did I mention the 646 hits he's given up in his last 507 2/3 innings? Duke can't be more than a fourth or fifth starter until he stops doing that.
If we give rotation spots to Maholm, Snell, Gorzelanny, and Karstens (which Neal Huntington won't do right now, but I think it's a safe bet), then Duke's probably in a battle for the fifth spot with Ross Ohlendorf right now (unless Braden Looper walks through that door). Would the Pirates be better suited with Ohlendorf in a set-up role and Duke in the five slot, assume Duke can bring the strikeout rate up a little more and the defense can help him out some? I think they probably would, but then I'm not sure I'd gamble on Duke being a lot better than last year, either.