Finally, after four long off days, we can shelve trade and contract extension speculation and bickering for a few hours because there's an actual baseball game on tonight. Tim Lincecum and his Giants are at PNC to face Paul Maholm and kick off baseball's nominal second half tonight at 7:05.
Let's assume for one moment that the offered extensions for Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson are not ploys to gain leverage in trade talks or with the fans. I'm not remotely convinced of this, but let's assume it for now for the purpose of this exercise. Signing Wilson and Sanchez to extensions would be a signal from the front office that they think the Pirates are ready to contend in 2010 and 2011.
This is insane. Right? Alternately, what has to happen to make this not insane? The best lineup I can scrape from what's currently available to the Pirates for next year is along these lines:
- Andrew McCutchen, CF
- Freddy Sanchez, 2B
- Andy LaRoche, 3B
- Pedro Alvarez, 1B
- Ryan Doumit, C
- Lastings Milledge, LF
- Brandon Moss/Steve Pearce, RF
- Jack Wilson, SS
This line, admittedly, has the potential to be not awful, predicated on the following conditions (which are listed in what I believe is the order of likelihood, starting with the most likely and ending with the completely improbable):
- Lastings Milledge gets his sh*t together.
- Jack and Freddy stay healthy
- Andy LaRoche has a full season that resembles May of 2008 (.330/.411/.457)
- A Brandon Moss/Steve Pearce platoon is a productive corner outfield spot.
- Pedro Alvarez is ready for the Major Leagues on Opening Day next year.
You know what I think of Wilson and Sanchez's health prospects, so the fact that I think that's the second most likely thing to happen on this list should tell you something.But let's say Milledge gets it together and hits .280/.380/.450, Jack and Freddy both play 140 games, Andy LaRoche breaks through, and Pedro Alvarez doesn't hit .219/.298/.490 (imply that he hits much better and not worse) when he's thrust into a situation he's clearly not ready for next year. We're still sorely lacking in power, as neither Milledge nor LaRoche will provide many home runs, even if they slug above .450. We've really got no choice but to go out and get a right fielder.
Besides going out and severely overpaying someone like Jermaine Dye, I don't see any immediately apparent free agent options. And we don't have anyone that's a potential trade chip right now (Adam LaRoche, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, John Grabow) that can bring a return that would be immediately better than a Moss/Pearce platoon.
So we've got to make a trade to fill that hole. Let's say the Rays are desperate for catching now that Dioner Navarro sucks and agree to Ryan Doumit for Matt Joyce (very hypothetical). Now, we've got to toss one more condition on to the list; that Robinzon Diaz and Jason Jaramillo can provide acceptable offense behind the plate to make giving up Doumit worth it.
But let's say that all those things happen because hey, we're due for a break (or five) as Pirate fans. We haven't even discussed pitching yet. Zach Duke and Paul Maholm are what they are, so Ross Ohlendorf and Charlie Morton have to mature into top of the rotation guys. That's probably a long-shot, but it's possible, I guess. So our rotation is something like Morton/Ohlendorf/Maholm/Lincoln/Duke (this assumes, of course, that Lincoln is ready to be a passable big league starter next year), but we've still got a bullpen to worry about. John Grabow's a free agent, but so long as we're assuming things, we'll assume that a good left-handed reliever able to cash in huge on the free agent market decides to stick with the crappy team that's given him nothing over the first six years of his career. And we'll assume that Matt Capps doesn't suck, his arm isn't about to fall off, and he hasn't been figured out by the better part of the league. And Joe Kerrigan fixes Joel Hanrahan. And Jesse Chavez and Evan Meek move forward instead of backwards.
The point is this; teams that are rebuilding don't have everything click at once. Everyone loves to point at last year's Rays and say that it did all click at once for them, but the people that do that forget that the Rays were a popular pick to breakout in 2007. Their pitching and defense were awful and the Rays had to readjust on the fly by dealing Delmon Young, one of the players that everyone thought would be a main catalyst for the turnaround of their franchise.
More than likely, a few players will start to take steps forward for the Pirates next year and a few won't, meaning that things will have to be done to adjust. I know the front office is pointing to 2011 and there's a chance we'll finish .500 by then, but the real building that I see being done is for 2012 and beyond, and anchoring in a pair of 30+ year old middle infielders in 2009 just doesn't build anything towards that.
Interesting news just broke by DK tonight; the Pirates recently approached Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson jointly about contract extensions. There are a bunch of caveats heaped on to this offer (it has to be accepted within the next week or so with the trade deadline approaching, Freddy is unlikely to accept if Jack doesn't and vice versa, etc.), but it's interesting and unexpected for a couple reasons.
To be perfectly honest, my initial reaction to this is that the front office offered these extensions with no plans of either player accepting. Freddy and Jack are about as popular as any Pirates have been in the PNC Park era and any trade involving them is going to be cause a lot of consternation among an already disgruntled fan base. Offering them extensions that they subsequently don't accept probably softens the PR hit taken if they're traded before the end of the month.
Assuming that's not the case, though, and assuming that the front office wants these two in place for two or three more years, the next question that's raised is why? Sanchez and Wilson would make a perfectly acceptable double-play combination on a contender, I think, but we all know the Pirates are a few years away from that. Both players are 31, both players have been nagged by injuries regularly over the past couple seasons, and I don't know how long either will remain a productive player for.
I'm sure these extensions would take care of the problems posed by both player's options for 2010 (which could theoretically make them more tradeable, though I don't think even Neal Huntington wants to deal with the fallout from signing Freddy Sanchez to an extension on July 20th and trading him on July 31st) and wouldn't be bank-breaking deals, but I'm just not sure that the reward for keeping these two around beyond this year or next year is all that great.
Is it time for baseball yet? No? We have another off-day? Great. Time for some links.
Tyler Yates had Tommy John surgery yesterday. That brings his Pirate career to a close (he's a free agent), dropping the curtain on maybe the worst trade of Neal Huntington's short career as GM. He swears he'll be back, but this is the second TJ on his pitching elbow and people very rarely ever make it back from that. I feel bad for Yates, as this is extraordinarily bad news for him, but I'd much rather see Evan Meek and Jesse Chavez in the bullpen right now.
DC-area reader Jeff sent me this story about Manny Acta's firing yesterday in which much of the blame seems to be laid on Lasting Milledge's shoulders stem from his handling of Lastings Milledge. When you follow a 100 loss season with a first half that puts your team on pace for 110 losses, you're going to be fired. If Acta was a strict disciplinarian who suspended Milledge and players who stepped over the line, he'd be getting fired for that instead. He was handed a turd sandwich of a baseball team and fired for not making it taste like filet mignon. That's not Lasting Milledge's fault.
Speak of the devil, Milledge was sent to Lynchburg over the Triple-A All-Star break and he homered twice last night.
And speaking of the Triple-A All-Star Game, Indianapolis's catcher Eric Kratz doubled and homered and won the "Top Star" of the game. He's 29 and not a prospect, but it's nice to see players from the organization doing well anyways.
Behind the Steel Curtain has a cool interview with Ross Ohlendorf.
Charlie previews the trade deadline for the Pirates at SB Nation's MLB Daily Dish blog.
Finally, keep an eye on the PBC Blog and Jorge Arangure over the next few days, because a decision should be forthcoming on the Miguel Angel Sano investigation and that should be pretty closely coupled with a signing.
I can't imagine Pittsburgh sports without SportsBeat. Thanks for everything, Stan.
At the end of yesterday's mammoth Zach Duke post, Azibuck chided me for not explaining my conclusion that much of Duke's improvement this year has been due to the Pirates' improved defense. This year, the Pirates are turning 73.1% of balls in play against him into outs, which is way up from 68.5% last year and and 63.1% the year before. His BABIP has dropped considerably, and the difference between his ERA (3.29) and his FIP (4.18) is fourth in the National League among guys with more than 100 innings. Defense is playing a big role in Duke's success this year.
So why, then, is the defense not helping Paul Maholm? Maholm's strikeouts are down this year, but his K rate is still higher than Duke's. Their line drive percentages are almost identical, Maholm gets more ground balls, and he's kept 11% of flyballs in the infield this year, much better than his career rates and much better than Duke's IF/F %. Maybe because of that, his home run rate is way down this year as well. The biggest difference for Maholm is that the DER behind him has dropped from .710 last year to .674 this year.
Being upfront here, I don't really have an answer to the question I posed at the header here. One possible explanation is that Maholm has made 11 starts on the road compared to just seven at home while Duke's got an even 9/9 split. PNC has graded out as a pretty solid pitcher's park the past few seasons and the big left field makes it especially friendly to lefties. There, Maholm's picked up three of his wins with a 2.96 ERA and a 1.25 WHIP. On the road, he's 3-3 with a 5.77 ERA and a 1.63 WHIP. Duke also has a noticeable home/away split, though it's considerably less drastic.
Is it luck? I hate (hate hate hate) labeling something as luck, but I'm at a loss to explain how two pitchers with such similar approaches with such similar batted ball data have such varying defensive results. There are a few metrics, notably David Pinto's PMR, that quantifies defense behind pitchers, but those generally aren't released until the end of the season and until I see them, it's going to be hard to quantify exactly what's going on with Maholm.
As for his second half, there are two things that could happen for him. One is that things start evening out, he puts some good performances together, and his ERA comes down a bit. He's the most extreme groundball pitcher on the club, so the loss of Nyjer Morgan's defense in left theoretically affects him the least. The second is that his HR/F rate (the percentage of flyballs he gives up that become home runs), which is an uncharacteristically low 5.5% (he's usually between 12-14%) begins to catch up with him and while he gets better defensive support, his home runs spike and things don't change superficially.
Since the Ross Ohlendorf PitchFX stuff went over so well last week, I thought that the next obvious target for an in-depth PitchFX examination would be Zach Duke. He's drastically improved over last year, to the point that he was actually named to the NL All-Star team on Sunday and he really kind of deserved it (if you view this year in a vacuum, at least). We know the Pirates' defense has improved by leaps and bounds behind him as his BABIP has dropped from .327 last year to .271 this year. But what else is he doing differently?
To answer the question, I've pulled in all of the PitchFX data for games that Duke pitched at PNC Park in the past two seasons. There are some questions about park effect on PitchFX (I don't think they effected my Ohlendorf study that much, but that's a longer story), so this is the best way to neutralize that. And since Duke threw 1433 pitches at PNC last year and 874 there this year, I think we should still have plenty of data to look at.
For starters, Duke was made 15 starts at PNC last year. He went 4-8 with a 4.89 ERA, 4.7 K/9 (48 Ks in 92 innings), and his K/BB was 1.85. This year, he's made nine starts at PNC, and he's 6-3 with a 2.77 ERA and a 1.08 WHIP. Interestingly, his strikeouts at home are down to 4.3/9, but his K/BB has improved to 2.58. Clearly, he's doing something better this year. Again, we'll go after the jump to try and find out what it is.
I had hoped to do some sort of mid-season post today, but I'm having a bit of writer's block about it and may move it to Wednesday, because tomorrow will be Zach Duke day. I also think that writing a post about Brandon Moss and Garrett Jones might serve as a mid-season review; the fact that we're talking about these two guys should indicate where we're at as a baseball team right now.
After a decent run by Lastings Milledge in the GCL and a nice (powerless, but nice) start to his stint in Indy, I've got a feeling that we're going to be down to one open outfield slot sooner rather than later. Unless Adam LaRoche is traded in the near future, and he's not making that task look easy, we're probably going to be down to Jones and Moss for the starting right field spot. This, as I've said, is already an indictment of the team. Moss is probably on what I like to call the, "Nice Player" career track. He's very solid defensively and his bat isn't awful. He's not likely to ever be more than a fourth or fifth outfielder, but I'm guessing he'll have a job for a while because of his good glove and decent bat. Jones, meanwhile, is a never-was who didn't post a Triple-A OPS over .800 until his third full go-round there, but has shown nice pop, something the Pirates sorely lack, in both Indy and his short stint with the Pirates.
If it does come down to the two of them for a playing spot, I have a feeling that the public sentiment is going to be leaning towards Jones. You don't have to look any further than Dejan Kovacevic's mid-season review to find that sentiment:
Bottom position player: Perhaps no player in Major League Baseball has done less with a starting opportunity than Brandon Moss, who did not record his second RBI until May.
I won't argue that Moss has been disappointing this year and I won't argue that he's been our worst position player (though I could), but it's a ridiculous statement to say that no player has done less with a starting job. Using Moss's 237 PAs as a baseline, there are 27 players that have done less than him at the plate this year, including guys who, like Moss, are trying to get established in the big leagues like Chris Davis and Jarrod Saltalamacchia. Chase Headley, another such player, just barely ranks above Moss. Since May 12th, he's actually hit.306/.359/.470. He's still only got 3 homers in that span, but I still think that's reasonably productive.
Jones, on the other hand, has a career .312 OBP in the minor leagues and is 28. I know that John Russell and a lot of people that watched him play in the spring are impressed with his swing, but those sort of numbers just scream to me that he's a quad-A guy that three or four years from now, I'm going to be watching him play for someone's Triple-A squad in Durham and laughing about when he was a Pirate. Moss is still only 25 with good minor league credentials and he's shown both this year and last year that he can hit big league pitching for extended stretches.
Neither Jones nor Moss strikes me as a player that's going to be a long-term starter in the big leagues, but if either one of the two is going to do it, it's almost certainly going to be Brandon Moss.
Honestly, I turned the game off in the first inning when Adam LaRoche stabbed a hard hit grounder by Chase Utley and Virgil Vasquez stood on the mound with his thumb up his ass instead of covering first. I think I made the right decision. The fans need a break from the Pirates as much as the players need the All-Star break right now.
Congrats to Zach Duke. He's certainly earned his All-Star berth with his work this year, even if he's got to have one of the worst overall career resumes of any pitcher to make the team. Hopefully, he'll keep pitching well enough that this doesn't become a punchline in future years. I'm starting to compile the PitchFX data now so that hopefully over the break I'll be able to do a post or two on Duke and what's made the difference for him this year.