The Hinske signing becomes officialy today, too. The Pirates know better than to announce news the Friday before the Super Bowl, apparently. DK's reporting the terms at one year/$1.5 million. That's really not much money to provide some bench insurance. And it's not Luis Gonzalez.
There's no terms yet, but the Bucs locked up Paul Maholm this morning to a three-year deal with an option for a fourth. That fourth year is his first year of free agency, so it seems like a nice deal for the Pirates. Unless they've gone out and done something insane, all this does is lock down Maholm's salary for the next three years. How Maholm performs in the future is obviously a pertinent question here and he's next in line for "The Rotation" series I'm working on, so hopefully I'll get to that early next week.
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 fourteenth stop on the Road to 17: 2006
I attended more baseball games in 2006 then in any other year of my life. OK, so maybe I haven't kept track, but I am 99% certain that this is a true statement. It was the second summer I lived in Pittsburgh and not only was I in the city all summer, but I knew other people that liked going to Pirate games. As a result, my memories of 2006 are kind of like weird slideshow of game memories in my head.
I see Opening Day, watching Michael Keaton throw out the first pitch, then seeing my dad fall asleep in the stands before the fifth inning. I think, "this is going to be a long year." I'm watching Ian Snell dominate the Phillies in late April after some perceived slight the day before. Then I'm up in left field, yelling the answer of the "Know Your Buccos" question to a clearly puzzled man a section over, who still hasn't thanked me for his home plate club tickets. I'm in a bar on the South Side watching Jason Bay launch another homer. I'm in the left field bleachers watching Jose Castillo launch behemoth homers thinking, "Finally! He's finally breaking out!" I'm still there two months later to watch Tom Gorzelanny struggle against the Rockies. I'm sitting on my couch furiously typing when Karl Ravech says, "The Yankees have acquired Craig Wilson; we think Shawn Chacon is involved." I'm in stats class and our professor uses Freddy Sanchez to illustrate rate stats; he asks us if anyone remembers his final batting average and the whole class wheels and looks at me. ".344" They all turn back around.
Really, there wasn't a lot special about the 2006 Pirates. Before the season started, Dave Littlefield went out and overspent on Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz and inserted them into the starting lineup for no good reason. Everyone that knew anything about that team knew it was a huge mistake. Both Burnitz and Randa were playing for one last paycheck and the Pirates had better internal options (Freddy Sanchez, who killed the ball in August and September of 2005 and Craig Wilson, patron saint of WHYGAVS). Dave Littlefield didn't care. Burnitz had a big left-handed swing that could hit balls over the Clemente Wall and Randa was a crowd pleaser. Nothing else really mattered.
Of course, Burntiz cratered and Randa lost his job to the eventual NL batting champion. If there was a person left in Pittsburgh that thought Dave Littlefield was doing a good job, even they were convinced by the end of 2006 that it was time to go in a new direction. Thank god for small favors, I guess.
The early part of 2006 was marked by two incredible hot streaks. From May 18th until May 28th, Jason Bay hit ten home runs in ten games, finishing with a seven-in-six flourish. It was a hot streak unlike anything I've ever seen from any Pirate, including Brian Giles (who was a much better hitter than Bay). Night after night the ball just kept leaping off of his bench and over the fence. For a while it seemed like it was going to carry on forever. It came right in the middle of the Pirates ridiculous push to get him into the All-Star Game, too, which was nice because when he was voted in mostly everyone agreed that he deserved it. I don't know how many times the Pirates have lost seven of ten games since this losing streak began, but the only 3-7 stretch I'll ever remember is this one.
Right as Bay's streak was winding down, Jose Castillo started a streak of his own. He homered in five straight games to end the month of May, including a ridiculous 2-homer, 6-RBI night against the Brewers where one of his bombs glanced off the third level of the rotunda and the other one went to dead center. After the Pirates beat the Brewers again on June 1st, Castillo stood with a .311/.359/.500 line with eight homers and I think every Pirate fan everywhere thought that he was finally starting to hit a stride and come out of his shell. From June 2nd on, he hit six homers with a .222/.267/.320 line. He swung for the fences with every cut. The hot streak that we all thought was his breakout ruined him.
The season itself was just a continuation of the same old Bucs. Only three regular position players (Jason Bay, Fredd Sanchez, and Sean Casey) had above average OPSs on the year and Craig Wilson was the only bench player to hit that above average mark. Of those four guys, two of them were traded at the trade deadlien for Brian Rogers and Shawn Chacon. The bullpen was pretty awesome (Mike Gonzalez, Salomon Torres, Matt Capps, John Grabow, and Roberto Hernandez all threw significant innings with good ERAs), but the rotation was bad with Zach Duke and Paul Maholm dropping off from their breakouts and Kip Wells struggling with a blood clot, Ian Snell taking his lumps in his rookie year, and Victor Santos existing. Looking at the rotation and the lineup, you can see that this team was just a recipe for disaster.
And boy, did disaster ever strike. Just like the home runs wouldn't stop flying off of Jason Bay's bat in May, the Pirates couldn't stop losing games in June. On the 15th, they suffered a seemingly innocent 6-5 loss to the Cardinals. That ballooned into a sweep by the Twins, who started Francisco Liriano AND Johan Santana against us, that brutal make-up game loss to the D'Backs on a Monday afternoon when the Pirates had bases loaded and no outs in the bottom of the tenth but failed to score, a sweep at the hand of the Royals who had the worst record in baseball by a good amount at the time, three troucnings in LA against Jim Tracy's old team, and two losses to the White Sox. I don't remember why, but I was in my car on the Thursday afternoon that the Bucs and Sox played the third game of that series. They carried a two-run lead into the eighth inning and after Rob Mackowiak singled with one out, Jim Thome came up to pinch hit. I remember screaming at the radio in my car when Tracy left Hernandez on the mound to face Thome with Gonzalez still in the pen and sure enough, Big Jim tied it all up with a two-run homer. I was convinced we were going to lose and I'm still honestly kind of in disbelief over Freddy Sanchez's walkoff homer to end that game. I sort of feel like if he didn't hit it, we might still be mired in that losing streak now.
Now that we're getting well into the WHYGAVS era, I'd be remiss if I failed to mention that two of my all-time favorite WHYGAVS moments took place in 2006. One of them was the Pirates/Royals game I decided to liveblog in mid-June. The Pirates were mired in their awful losing streak, but Kip Wells was coming back and the Pirates and Royals were so bad I decided to make a stab at a live blog. This was the final entry from that game before my sign-off:
11:29- Some fun stats: the Pirates committed 3 errors tonight, walked 11 batters, gave up more runs than hits, threw a wild pitch, allowed a passed ball, and gave a win to Mark Redman and his "5 innings, 6 hits, 5 runs (all earned) 5 walks" line. All told, our pitchers threw 168 pitches tonight (!) and only managed to get 89 of them across the plate. If you remove Matt Capps, it's 75 out of 151 (less than 50%). Just an ugly, ugly game. Actually, the Royals were pretty bad in their own right, but just about anyone can find a way to win when the opponent walks them 11 times.
Perversely, that liveblog also turned out to be WHYGAVS' breakout moment, as Deadspin picked up the link in the morning and sent a then-unheard of wave of traffic my way.
The other great moment is, sadly enough, the trade deadline from that year. I finished up lab work for the summer at the end of July, so my first true off-day was July 31st. I walked downstairs, opened up my brother's laptop, sat on the couch, and turned on ESPN. That day was probably Dave Littlefield's most active day as GM. He'd already traded Sean Casey by the time I dragged myself out of bed that morning and before 4:00 PM, he'd dealt Kip Wells, Oliver Perez, Roberto Hernandez, and Craig Wilson as well. The total haul for that day was Xavier Nady, Jesse Chavez, Brian Rogers, and Shawn Chacon. Just thinking about it makes me want to vomit. What was awesome about it, though, was that there was a lot of people online that afternoon reacting just as violently to the trades as I was. It sucked, but it was kind of reassuring to know that it sucked for so many other people, too.
The longer I write this, more and more memories from 2006 are pouring out of me. Who remembers the 18 inning game against the Astros in late May? Who else was at the 15-inning game against the Astros in late September? By the time that game ended, it was me and two friends with a ton of Astro fans who chided us when we cheered for the Pirates by saying, "WHAT? Do you WANT the Cardinals to make the playoffs or something?" I could probably go on forever about this awful, awful baseball team. They were terrible, but maybe more so than any other team during this losing streak, they were mine.
I only have one link to share here, but I just can't bury this in a links post. Eron from Sitting in the North Shore Notch e-mailed me a fantastic idea the other day. As you probably know, the Pirates are having a contest this year where the fans can vote for a player to receive the final bobblehead of the year. And there's a write-in slot. So who's name would be better to put in that slot than the one and only ¡Romulo! Sanchez? As far as I can tell, there's no answer to that question. So click the link above and vote for ¡Romulo! And keep doing it. All I ask is that someone mail me a ¡Romulo! bobblehead if he wins.
Bucs are interested in him too. If we're interested in signing someone that can actually be useful as a utility/fourth outfielder in 2009, Hinske scores much higher on the scale than Luis Gonzalez. I have taken this occasion to actually make a new poll, which you can find in the left sidebar.
You know, I honestly had no idea that Luis Gonzalez was still in baseball. Apparently he is and he's looking for a bench role that will enable him to get paid $1 million or so to stay in baseball. And hey, whaddya know! The Pirates are game!
Gonzalez, 41, a career .283 hitter with 354 home runs and impeccable leadership credentials, batted .261 with eight home runs and 47 RBIs in 341 at-bats with the Florida Marlins last season and is looking for a similar, bench-type role this year. Two other teams are interested, though those are not known.
When a player arrives at the point in his career in which his impeccable leadership credentials are mentioned before his most recent stats, you're going to get what you pay for. Oh, to be a fly on the Federal Street walls today.
Frank Coonelly: Good God, Neal, the incessant bitching by these fans about Jack Miller and Doug Manklabitz is driving me nuts.
Neal Huntington: Jack Wilson and Doug Mientkiewicz?
FC: Whatever. Who can we sign to pacify them?
NH: Well, Bobby Abreu, Adam Dunn, and Ben Sheets are still free agents ...
FC: Can you get them for less than $5 million a year?
NH: No, probably not.
FC: Aim lower then, dammit!
NH: Well, there's always Luis Gonzalez. Decent career batting average, lots of home runs ...
FC: These fans don't want stats! They whined when Jason Michaels left and he hit like a high-schooler, for chrissake! What about his grit quotient? If we don't re-sign Mientkie-whatever am I going to be verbally assaulted every time a Pirate fan sees me in public, or will this signing keep me from having to deal with that crap? WHAT ABOUT HIS LEADERSHIP CREDENTIALS?
NH: Well, they're not Mientkiewiczian, but they're still pretty freaking impeccable.
FC: Dooooooo iiiiiiiiiiiiiit!I'm mostly kidding, of course, but Gonzalez certainly isn't a player that's going to be flipped for anything of value at the trade deadline. If the Pirates sign him, he'll be here to take the Jason Michaels' role from last year. He'll be much better at it than Michaels or Craig Monroe. If you were expecting the Pirates to sign a free agent that could start in left field and might have some value at the trade deadline, well, you're going to have to keep waiting, because Luis Gonzalez ain't it.
The biggest problem with the Pirates' pitching staff in 2007 wasn't that Tom Gorzelanny or Ian Snell imploded, it was that they both did. One implosion we possibly could've handled. Two was disastrous. If the Pirates' pitching staff is going to improve enough to make a difference in 2009, Gorzelanny is going to have to figure out what was wrong last year and fix it. So what was wrong with him? Was it an injury or did he just forget how to pitch? Which is worse?
To start with, I'd recommend you read Dave Golebiewski's examination of Gorzo's ugly 2008 at FanGraphs. It starts by pointing out that Gorzo's 2007 was much better than his peripherals would've indicated, which you may or may not have already assumed from his walk and strikeout rates that year. He goes on to talk about Jim Tracy's insane abuse of Gorzo at the end of 2007, which was something that we all talked about at the time. In fact, I wrote this post last February after Gorzo was scratched from a spring training start:
I say that Gorzelanny was abused last year by Jim Tracy and if things keep going like this, I'm going to be surprised if he pitches 125 innings this year.
He threw 105 with the Pirates and 35 in the minors. I'm still saying I called that one.
It seemed to me that Gorzo was dropping his arm slot early in the year to compensate for his shoulder pain. I really wanted to use PitchFX to compare his release point from 2007 to 2008, but there weren't many parks that had PitchFX cameras installed in 2007, so I instead decided to go with three games that Gorzo pitched at PNC in 2008, one in April, one in June, and one after his return from the minors in August. As usual, a hat-tip goes to Brooks Baseball for the charts.
Here's April 13th against the Reds:
Here's June 29th against the Rays:
And here's August 29th against the Brewers:
It's really hard to draw any conclusion from just three games, but it certainly seems to me that after his return from his rehab/demotion trip to AAA that his armslot is much higher in the August start than the other two (for a guide, look at the release point in relation to the 6 foot line).
The real question from that centers on his trip to AAA. The team never put Gorzo on the DL and never really discussed his health after his stiff shoulder in February, but he certainly pitched like a guy that was hurt and the team treated him like one. His last big league start before his demotion was on the Fourth of July. He then didn't pitch again until July 12th, and then not again until July 20th. After that, I know he pitched on the 25th and 30th, but I'm not certain where he went from there. Still, that information coupled with the fact that he was on a strict pitch count (his longest start out of his first four in the minors was 5 1/3 innings), and we've got a "demotion" that looks an awful lot like a rehab stint.
This is what makes it so hard to figure out what to expect from Gorzo in 2008. We can be fairly sure he was hurt, but I honestly I have no idea how badly or what the long-term implications might be. Seeing that he pitched all year, I've got to assume it's something that was cured by winter rest, but how can anyone be sure? He mostly dominated at the end of his AAA stint and while it's true he looked better (both from the arm slot observation above and my anecdotal memory of those starts), his numbers certainly didn't improve much.
So what we know about Gorzo coming into 2009 is this: he was probably hurt last year, he lost some weight and he's had a winter of rest, which is probably helpful given that some downtime last July seemed to straighten him out a bit. All of this is to say that I really have no idea what to expect from Gorzo in 2009. I think that he'll probably be OK healthwise, which is the most important thing for him, but I'm certainly not positive about that. Even if he is healthy, it's not likely that he'll be able to post a sub-4.00 ERA again. If I had to make a guess, I'd say that his year this year will probably resemble Zach Duke's in 2006 (4.47 ERA, 1.50 WHIP) with fewer innings (Duke threw 215 1/3). But hey, anything's better than 6.66, right?
Are you then that Virgil, and that fountain, that pours out so great a river of speech? O, glory and light to other poets, may that long study, and the great love that made me search your work, be worth something now. You are my master , and my author: you are alone are the one from whom I learned the high style that has brought me honor. See the creature that I turned back from: O, sage, famous in wisdom, save me from her, she that makes my veings and pulse tremble. --Dante's Inferno, Canto I
OK, so that's probably asking a bit much from Virgil Vasquez. But I did find myself in a classic literature class at Duquesne four years ago in which I head to read Virgil's Aeneid and Dante and dammit, when I have a chance to put some of that into action, well I'm going to do it.
There are two ways you can possibly react to the news that the Pirates claimed Virgil Vasquez. You can shrug and say, "Oh well, we need as many arms as we can get next year," which is about what I did, or you can be upset and say something along the lines of, "HOW COULD THE PIRATES CLAIM VIRGIL VASQUEZ OFF OF WAIVERS WHEN BEN SHEETS IS A FREE AGENT?!? GAWD THIS FRONT OFFICE IS CLUELESS, WE'RE NEVER GOING TO WIN."
The dichotomy of the reaction about describes where Pirate fans are right now. There's a great discussion about this at Bucs Dugout today between Charlie and Dejan, stemming from Dejan's blog post this morning discussing that very divide. If you haven't yet, I strongly recommend that you take some time and read the entire discussion. It's a very interesting discussion about both the future of the Pirates and what happens when blogging and reporting cross paths.
While I may have some more to add to the second part of that discussion in the future, right now I'm mostly concerned with the future of the Pirates. And the only thing I can add to the conversation is this: if you honestly believe that the Pirates can rebuild and contend at the same time in 2009, you are wrong. This off-season, the Yankees added half a billion dollars in future salary through free agency and they still might be the third best team in the AL East. Think about that for a second. They went out and signed CC Sabathia, AJ Burnett, Mark Teixeira, and now have brought Andy Pettitte back, and they still might not be a playoff team. The Pirates, while they may have enough money to support a much larger payroll than the one they're going to take the field with in 2009, certainly can't bankroll the kind of off-season the Yankees did.
And that's the problem. The Pirates can certainly afford a few one-year deals right now and if guys like Adam Dunn or Bobby Abreu or Ben Sheets are amenable, the Pirates certainly might be able to swoop in in February and pick up one or two of them the way they did with Sanders, Lofton, and Suppan in 2003, then deal them at the deadline for something they wouldn't have had to start with. And so long as the draft and Latin American scouting budget remain untouched, there's nothing wrong with that. But none of those moves are going to make the Pirates competitive and if the price isn't right, there's no reason to get bent out of shape over the Pirates not signing anyone.
The Pirates have been losing for 16 years. When you really break it down, 50 or 62 or 70 or 85 wins are all fungible if the Pirates don't make the playoffs. All that matters right now in 2009 is what the Pirates do to set themselves up for the future. It's terrible and it's awful that we as fans have to think like this, but it's not Neal Huntington's fault.
It's true that the front office will eventually be judged on big league results, but there's nothing to judge right now. If in 2012, the Pirates are a Bobby Abreu or Ben Sheets-type player away from competing for the NL Central and the team sits on their hands with a $50 million payroll, yeah, I'm going to be as pissed about it as anyone. But for now, it's hard to ignore the money being spent in Latin America. It's impossible to ignore the talent that last year's draft brought in. You can't look at the farm system right now and tell me that it's not better than it was when Littlefield was in charge. Will this yield better future results for the club? It's true that I can't say with certainty that it will, but I can say that for the first time since I've started blogging (and we're almost to four years now), I feel like the team is headed somewhere.
Let's do this. Right now, I'll write down Goldstein's top 11, Sickels' top 10, and WTM's top 20. In a year, when these lists come out again, we'll reevaluate. THEN, we'll have something to judge. Is the farm system still moving forward? Is it moving backwards? How did the trades from the 2008 deadline really pan out? What moves did Huntington make in 2009? Yeah, it's a year from now. Yeah, it sucks to wait that long. But you can't build a baseball team overnight.
"The free-agent market is not over," president Frank Coonelly said during the second question-and-answer session with management this weekend. "We're still being very active. I would be very surprised if we don't ... sign players that you would fall in love with this year, between now and the beginning of Spring Training."
Now, I know there's lots of aversion to signing free agents because of the way that Dave Littlefield handled things in his disastrous run as GM, but Charlie's got a good post up on his blog about how the Nationals did a nice job of turning stop-gap free agent acquisitions into useful prospects, and it's something that Huntington and company can take to heart.
I'm guessing the team is looking at someone to come in and play left/right field for 2009 until Andrew McCutchen is ready, probably in 2010. I mean, there's got to be more to this kind of talk than Braden Looper, right?