Monday, August 30, 2010

Fire John Russell

In my June 13th post New Lows for the Pirates, I wrote the following:
People talk about talent evaluation as the defining measure of Neal Huntington and his organization.  I don't know what to think about this.  The organization has seemingly had three very good drafts.  I'm fine with Huntington's record in player transactions.  Mostly good in my view, some bad, but he wasn't trading much talent and he has gotten some assets through Rule 5 and the waiver wire for free.  But, I am very troubled by the performance at the major league level.  Not the skill level, which leaves a lot to be desired, but the decision making by the players and the lineup construction and in-game managing by the manager.

I am more optimistic about the talent in the Pirates organization than I have been in many years.  But, I am also now more concerned than ever with how they are currently and will in the future develop that talent.  The teaching that Neal Huntington continually cites as taking place is just not evident at the major league level and the long and short-term planning that is the core of any successful organization seems haphazard at best and non-existant at worst.

These are important days.  Put me down as concerned.
I have seen nothing in the two plus months since to make me feel any better about what is going on at the major league level. It is time to fire John Russell and his staff.

I don't write that lightly. I fully recognize that we are talking about men and their careers. I recognize that John Russell and his staff are working hard. I recognize that the Pirates lack talent at the major league level. I recognize that the Pirates have continued to trade players during the entire three years of his tenure and there has been a revolving door in the clubhouse. I also know John Russell is a good person. For all these reasons I have not once called for him to be fired. In fact I have never publicly written that a coach or manager should be fired. These are hard decisions and being a fan and on the outside, I don't feel that I am equipped with all the information needed to make a sound decision. But in this case, I feel I have seen enough.

I just finished listening to Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin's press conference. Last night the Steelers lost a preseason game to the Denver Broncos. The noteworthy aspect of the game was that many of the young Steelers trying to earn a roster spot played poorly. There were physical errors, mental errors and, at times, a lack of composure and discipline. Before the game, in a sideline interview in front of the television cameras, Mike Tomlin uttered his favorite phrase. He spoke of individuals playing up to The Standard. Every player who has the privilege of putting on the Steelers uniform understands what The Standard is. The coaching staff has expectations. If you are going to play, then you play up to The Standard. If you don't perform to that level, someone else will play.

In his post-game press conference Tomlin spoke about the performance of various players. He didn't mince words. He did not parry shots with reporters or dance around issues. Those who played well and those who didn't were mentioned by name. He talked about taking advantage of teaching opportunities to raise the level of play of the young men that he coaches.

Football is different than baseball. The culture is different, the locker room environment is different, the nature of the season is different. But in both football and baseball coaches teach. There is much more teaching in football because of the myriad positions and the intricate game planning that goes on week-to-week, but both sports have fundamentals that are keys to success. In football it is blocking and tackling, securing the football, running good pass routes among other things. In baseball it is hitting and pitching, running the bases, fielding your position and the like. Both games have a big mental component.

The shocking thing about the Steelers' performance was seeing multiple players not perform up to The Standard. Coach Tomlin said that others will get opportunities as a result. As a fan, I know things will be better Thursday night when the team takes on Carolina in the final exhibition game. I know the problems will have been solved when the Steelers play their first meaningful game against Atlanta on Sept. 12.  Mike Tomlin will evaluate and he will teach and he will correct the mistakes. He has a track record. Last year, when starting running back Rashard Mendenhall had a lackadaisical week of practice, Tomlin benched him. There is a level of preparation and performance that is expected and if players don't meet that they don't play. Every man on the Pittsburgh Steelers understands this.

The Pittsburgh Pirates under John Russell do not have a standard. Their play throughout the course of this season has been substandard in every facet. They do not hit well, they do not pitch well, they do not run the bases well and they do not play defense well. First, and most importantly, this is on the players. They are major leaguers getting paid to play baseball. Many of the players are not very good. But, beyond the talent level, the Pirates make fundamental mistake after fundamental mistake.

Yesterday Ronny Cedeno came up in the third inning with men on first and third and the Pirates down 3-2. Pitcher Charlie Morton, he of the .000 batting average, was on deck. Cedeno, on his own, bunted. I'm sure in his mind Cedeno thought he might bunt for a hit and if he didn't at least the runner on first would advance. Of course Cedeno failed to execute the bunt properly and was thrown out. Morton struck out and the Pirates failed to score. This was so incredibly boneheaded that it is almost laughable. Throw in the fact that Cedeno did something similar the night before and it's pathetic. Top it off with the fact that something like this seems to happen every game and it is time to fire the manager and his staff.

Over the course of 162 games every player will make mistakes and every manager will make bad decisions. But, we have gotten to the point where the Pirates players' approach to the game and John Russell's lineup construction and in-game managing decisions are unacceptable. The list of examples of fundamental, fixable mistakes the Pirates have made this year goes into the hundreds and many seem to happen over and over. The fact that Ronny Cedeno does not know that he has to swing the bat in that situation, that Lastings Milledge makes the third out of an inning at third base before a runner crosses home plate, that Andy LaRoche doesn't know what to do when two players occupy the same base, that Ryan Doumit constantly tags players at chest level on plays at the plate, that many players can't execute a sacrifice bunt, that no pitcher on the staff effectively holds runners on base...the list is only just starting. These are things the coaching staff has to correct. It hasn't happened. There is no reason to believe it will happen.

In addition Russell's lineup construction seems haphazard at best. He has consistently failed to put his players in a position where they are most likely to succeed. He often ignores platoon splits and the allocation of playing time has been questionable. His unwillingness to honestly address his players' performance (see quotes about Aki Iwamura batting leadoff, Ryan Church being hot, Garrett Jones hitting well, any day's starting pitcher's performance) suggests that he isn't driving home the message that the level of performance is not acceptable.

John Russell has a record of 172-281 during his tenure with the Pirates. His .380 winning percentage is historically bad. But in the end, John Russell's record is not the main reason he should be fired. The teaching that should be taking place hasn't happened or is not being done the right way. A team with the Pirates' lack of talent needs to do all the little things right. Instead, the Pirates fundamentally are a terrible team. Russell's decision-making further hampers them. The Pirates don't have The Standard. Time's up, I've seen enough. Fire John Russell and his staff and find someone who can get this right.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Precipitous Fall of Garrett Jones

Although a founding member of the Garrett Jones Fan Club, even I have to wonder if we have already seen the apex of his career. His success last year after his call-up on July 1 made a bad season slightly more tolerable. It was easy to root for an unheralded 28-year-old guy with a limited track record, particularly when he was hitting 22 home runs in half a season.

Unfortunately this season Mr. Jones has reverted to the form that his MLEs roughly predicted for him. Since the All-Star break Jones is hitting an unsightly .193/.237/.393 for an OPS of .630. On the plus side, in those 156 plate appearances he has 8 home runs and his supporters can point to his .180 BABIP during that time to argue that he has just been very unlucky. But over the past month, things have only gotten worse. Since going 4-4 with two home runs in Colorado on July 28, Jones has had just one multi-hit game. In 104 plate appearances and 97 at bats he is hitting .134/.183/.309 for an Aki-like OPS of .492. Again his BABIP of .108 seems incredibly unlucky, but Jones has been a gaping hole in the middle of the lineup and is a big reason the Pirates aren't scoring any runs.

For the season GJ is now hitting .248/.307/.419. His .727 OPS is more than .200 below last year's number. His season BABIP of .268 is certainly low, but not epically so. There is a bit of a platoon split, as he certainly hits righties better than lefties, but generally I think the Pirates are going to have to rethink Jones' role going forward.

This is Jones' first full season in the majors, so the Pirates control his rights for five more years. Next year he will be cheap, roughly $450K, but do you want to pencil him in as the everyday first baseman? While very few major leaguers are used in a straight platoon role any more, maybe it's time to go back to the days of Chuck Tanner when the Bucs platooned at multiple positions on the diamond. Unfortunately, I think the days of Garrett Jones as an everyday major leaguer may have gone as quickly as they came. He certainly is a useful asset, but the hopes that he would be part of the foundation of the "new" Pirates seems to be quickly going by the wayside. Too bad for all involved.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cashing In on the NFL

Some guy who runs a gambling site in Vegas was on ESPN this morning talking about Super Bowl odds. It's late August and it is time for those of you so inclined to start paying attention. The Dallas Cowboys were the favorite at 9:1. Are you kidding me? The favorite? I want to run a Super Bowl Odds book. A group of teams including the Saints, Colts, Chargers and Ravens checked in between 10:1 and 13:1. The Jets also were listed at 13:1 and the Patriots at 14:1. The Steelers were an enticing 22:1.

This is were Vegas makes money. One winner, thirty-one losers. You and I can't get on the other side of these bets but if I could, from the list above, I'd love to get some action against the Cowboys, Ravens and Jets.
  • Dallas has offensive weapons, but Tony Romo hasn't done it in the big games. They got absolutely smoked by the Vikings in the playoffs last year and Wade Phillips doesn't exactly elicit the I've-got-it-all-figured-out persona that you want from your head coach. I'm open for business at 9:1.
  • The Ravens are missing Ed Reed for at least the first six games and their starting corners are terrible. Ray Rice is a really good back, but I'm not yet sold on Joe Flacco being the real deal. For this year's biggest disappointment I present the 6-10 Baltimore Ravens.
  • I love Hard Knocks. I'd never seen it before this year. Mistake. It's great. I love Rex Ryan. In fact I love everything about the Jets. The show makes the Jets easy to root for. But the Jets aren't there yet and they have a brutal early season schedule. In fact, if things don't break right out of the shoot, the Jets could be 2-5 when they head to Detroit November 7. Their first three home games are against Baltimore, New England and Minnesota. Going 2-1 in those three would be good. If they go 0-3 the fans' fondness of the team and its new stadium might wear off quickly. Put me down for the Jets not making the playoffs this year.
Who do I like? Well the clown on ESPN didn't list the odds for every team, so let's use's odds. I see value in the Niners, the Texans and the Steelers.
  • My sleeper team this year is San Francisco. I could find fifty guys and put together a team that could compete in their division. The Rams are beyond horrible, the Seahawks are nearly as bad and Arizona is choosing, literally not sure at the moment, between Matt Leinhart and Derek Anderson as their starting QB. Really that's all you need to know. You don't need to know anything about the Niners themselves. Playing in that division should guarantee five wins. Throw in games with Kansas City, Oakland, Tampa, Denver and Carolina and this team is a lock to make the playoffs. That's all you can ask for. At 25:1 put some shekels on the Niners. (And just to go on record, put Niners quarterback Alex Smith down as being the most impactful player in the NFL this year. Not the best, but the most influential on his team's fortunes. If he somehow finds a way to put it together like the guy who runs the next team, the Niners could win the Super Bowl.)
  • Texans quarterback Matt Schaub is the most underrated player in the league. My post on quarterbacks will be out shortly, but let me tease it my saying Schaub sits just outside the top five. Houston's biggest problem the past few years has been getting off to terrible starts and then having to make up too much ground to make the playoffs. Look for this year to be different. They open with division rival Indianapolis at home, but they should win four of their next five before seeing the Colts again. Running back is an issue and so is the secondary, but that's why they are 40:1. A farthing on Houston please.
  • It's never good to be financially involved with the team you support, but the Steelers are a much better team than the oddsmakers think. They blew five fourth quarter leads last year, gave up eight returns for touchdowns and still went 9-7. Having Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith back in the mix should mean no more late leads lost. The Roethlisberger suspension seems to have delivered a message the QB has taken to heart. He is in the best shape of his life and had a great camp. No question he's on a mission. If the team can win the home opener against Atlanta they should be at least 3-1 when Ben gets back. Installing first round pick Maurkice Pouncey as the starting center will hopefully stabilize the offensive line. I see 11-5 and a division title. At 22:1 you should probably get involved too.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

53 Good Men/Steelers Roster Thoughts

The Steelers comfortably beat the New York Giants 24-17 Saturday night. Now, after two preseason games, we have a pretty good sense of some roster battles that are on-going. One thing the Steelers have shown in these first two games is that they don't lack depth. There are going to be some tough decisions at almost every position. Here's a quick look at how I think the final 53-man roster will break down.

QUARTERBACK: Ben Roethlisberger looked fine in his limited work. The next time he overthrows Mike Wallace will be the first. As Byron Leftwich showed on his 68 yard touchdown throw in the second quarter, he should just lay it out there for the kid. Dennis Dixon was also very effective, playing the entire second half. His running ability adds a dimension that should be worked into the offense during the first four weeks. Based on the coaches downplaying Dixon's reads and overall performance against Detroit, it is clear Leftwich will be the starting quarterback on September 12th against Atlanta.
Roster Moves: There are too many good players in training camp. Barring injury, Charlie Batch doesn't make the team. There is no point in keeping him for four weeks when there are so many young guys vying for roster spots. Sorry Charlie. Two (2) make the team, excluding Ben who gets a roster exemption for the first four weeks.
RUNNING BACKRashard Mendenhall didn't do much tonight, but he will be the workhouse for this offense. Mewelde Moore is secure as the back-up and Isaac Redman has now ensured he will make the team after another very sound performance. Jonathan Dwyer didn't dress and now looks like a practice squad candidate. Frank SummersJustin Vincent and Dwayne Wright all looked good. I'm guessing Summers ability to play both backfield positions gives him an edge.
Roster Moves: Dwyer cut and re-signed to the practice squad. Summers and Vincent make the team. Wright cut. Five (5) make the team.
OFFENSIVE LINE: The team's glaring weakness the past two years remains a question mark. Maurkice Pouncey is the team's best lineman already and will start at center. After tonight I think Flozell Adams will be the starting right tackle. Doug Legursky is going to make the team. The question marks are now what to do with Justin HartwigKraig UrbikTony Hills and Jonathan Scott. Depending on how the Steelers want to line up depth-wise and money-wise different guys will make the team.
Roster Moves: With Pouncey and Legursky on the team I think Hartwig is vulnerable. Ramon Foster's versatility makes Jonathan Scott expendable. I think he gets cut and Tony Hills makes the team. I think Urbik will be waived and re-signed to the practice squad. The last spot probably comes down to Hartwig or Scott. Nine (9) make the final roster.
RECEIVERS: This position of weakness after the injury to Limas Sweed and the trade of Santonio Holmes is quickly becoming a strength. Ward, Wallace, Randle El are on the team. Tonight I think both draft choices, third-rounder Emanuel Sanders and sixth-rounder Antonio Brown, made the squad. Brown's return capabilities spell the end of personal favorite Stefan LoganArnaz Battle is going to be in a battle with Tyler Grisham and Brandon London for the last spot.
Roster Moves: The Steelers might be able to trade Logan for a seventh-round pick. Unfortunately there is just no room at the inn for a pure return guy. Brown seems capable and is more versatile. Logan gets traded or waived. I also think Battle ends up making the team, barely, due to the Steeler's likely unwillingness to go with only two proven veterans at the position. I see both Tyler Grisham and Brandon London being waived and re-signed to the practice squad. When Ben comes back after week four I am betting Battle is the guy to lose his job. Six (6) make the squad.
TIGHT ENDSHeath Miller continues to be a favorite target of Roethlisberger and Matt Spaeth is probably secure as the #2 pass catcher. David Johnson and Sean McHugh bring versatility to the position as both can line-up in the backfield.
Roster Moves: Flip a coin between Johnson and McHugh. Johnson's youth probably means he stays and McHugh goes. Three (3) are kept.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Daniel Sepulveda did a good job kicking off. It will be interesting to see what happens next week.
Roster MovesGreg Warren is the long snapper. Nothing to do here. Three (3) roster spots taken.
DEFENSIVE LINE: The three starters, Ziggy Hood and Chris Hoke are sure to be on the team. I'm guessing Steve McLendon is waived injured or put on the IR. That leaves veteran Nick Eason, second-year man Sunny Harris and seventh round pick Doug Worthington battling for two spots.
Roster Moves: As they did last year with Sunny Harris, I bet the Steelers try to sneak Worthington through waivers and re-sign him to the practice squad. Eason and Harris make the team. Seven (7) lineman on the roster.
LINEBACKERS: The four starters, Larry Foote and all three rookie draft picks are going to make the team. Stevenson Sylvester looked particularly good on a few plays tonight and will provide some much-needed depth at inside backer. With Andre Frazier done for the year, the last spot is going to come down to Keyaron Fox or Patrick Bailey.
Roster Moves: I see Fox winning that battle with Bailey being waived. Nine (9) linebackers on the final 53-man.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: There is certainly more depth in the back line versus past years, but I'm not sure how much more quality there is. Keenan Lewis is definitely challenging to start at corner ahead of both Bryant McFadden and William Gay. Lewis got his bell rung tonight and didn't play the second half, but looked reasonably good early after a good game against Detroit last week. Joe Burnett mad a good pick (had he done it last year against Oakland on a much easier play the Steelers may have made the playoffs) and probably sticks. Fifth-round pick Crezdon Butler has been the talk of camp, getting reps at corner, nickel and safety. Sure-fire starters Taylor, Polamalu, Clark and free agent signee Will Allen are all certainly on the team.
Roster Moves: I like the youth at corner and think Lewis, Burnett and Butler will all make the team. Mundy and Allen will be the back up safties. In my book McFadden gets first crack at starting although he hasn't been that impressive. That means there is no spot for Gay or Anthony Madison. Gay hasn't looked good in pass coverage or run support. In reality Madison is probably battling Arnaz Battle for the fifty-third roster spot. Nine (9) defensive backs make the squad.
SUMMARY: The surprises on my final 53-man roster are probably highlighted by Charlie Batch, Stefan Logan and Williiam Gay being let go. I have seven of the ten Steeler draft picks making the team. Fifth-round pick Chris Scott will most likely be wiaved injured and re-signed to the practice squad if not put on the IR. Jonathan Dwyer and Doug Worthington will both be re-signed to the practice squad if they clear waivers along with Tyler Grisham, Brandon London and Keith Urbik. Justin Vincent, Arnaz Battle and Tony Hills are guys I kept over Logan, Anthony Madison and Justin Hartwig.

Mercifully, the Season is Almost Over

It goes without saying the Pittsburgh Pirates 2010 season has been an unmitigated disaster. Andy LaRoche, Aki Iwamura, Ryan Church and Bobby Crosby all had a chance to hold everyday jobs the first half of the year. Three are now gone and LaRoche's career is on life support.

Every starting pitcher, literally every one, has been a disappointment. Zach Duke is a very real non-tender candidate. Charlie Morton and Brad Lincoln have massively underperformed expectations. Paul Maholm seems to be regressing. Ross Ohlendorf, who has actually pitched pretty well the second half of the season, has one win.
We know the story of the young position players and the bullpen and those have been bright spots.
Now, with 1/4 of the season left,  it is important the Pirates use this time to further evaluate some players on the bubble. Here are some of my thoughts.
Starting Pitching: It's time to go to a six or seven man rotation. James McDonald hasn't pitched a lot of innings and has done well enough that he should get a regular turn as should Ross Ohlendorf. I would probably keep sending Maholm out there as well. That leaves about 16-18 starts for the rest of the team. There is no point in being sentimental about this. Zach Duke doesn't deserve anymore starts. Period. He has the worst numbers of any pitcher in the majors. I would non-tender him after the season. He isn't worth $5 million. Time to move on. He can spot start if necessary.
On September 1 Brad Lincoln and Charlie Morton should be called up. I would put Lincoln right back in the rotation and get him five starts down the stretch. I would start Morton in the pen but would look to get him 2-3 starts before the end of the year to gauge any progress. That leaves about ten starts which I would use between Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen and Sean Gallagher. Bullpen usage will no longer be a factor with the expanded rosters. Gallagher's command is a huge issue but I would let him try to go five or six innings as a starter based on some effective longer stints out of the pen. McCutchen gets one last chance before being permanently relegated to the pen and AAAA status. Karsten, the one guy who has really outperformed expectations, gets the remaining 4-6 starts. He has proven useful, but I think it is apparent what he is now--an effective long-man and spot starter, nothing more.
That leaves the team with Ohlendorf, McDonald and Maholm as three of next year's starters with ten other guys being candidates. Minor leaguers Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris and Jeff Locke are not going north in April next year. It is not a pretty picture as we sit here today.
Field Positions: Five positions are effectively nailed down starting next season--left field (Tabata), center field (McCutchen), third base (Alvarez), second base (Walker) and catcher (Snyder). The two shortstops closest to the majors, Argeniz Diaz and Pedro Ciriaco have a very similar pedigree--good glove, limited bat. I'm not willing to write off Ronny Cedeno for next year but I would only give him 20 of the remaining starts and I'd split the other 20 between Diaz and Ciriaco just to get a better look. It won't tell you much, but there is no reason not to do it.
First base and left field are a hodgepodge of guys at critical junctures in their careers. The second half of this season has seen Garrett Jones fully revert to the numbers all the forecasting systems predicted of him when he came up last season. While hitting well with RISP Lastings Milledge really is not proving to be more than a fourth outfielder. His season numbers are now almost identically in-line with his career numbers and he's had over 600 PAs as a Pirate. I really see no reason to give Jones more than twenty starts down the stretch and I'd give Milledge virtually none.
That leaves four players for 60-70 starts--Ryan Doumit, Jeff Clement, Brandon Moss and John Bowker. The reason to play Doumit is that the team owes him $5.3 million next year and he's the best player out of the six. Many people don't like him, but his rate stats are exactly the same as Garrett Jones' this year and his counting stats are almost perfectly equal when you take into account that Jones has 150 more at bats. The fact is that Doumit is the best guy currently on the roster to play right field next year if Jones is playing first base. I don't have any expectations, but maybe not catching everyday will increase his productivity. And for the record, Doumit and Jones are just 79 days apart in age.
Speaking of age, it's somewhat ironic that Clement, Moss and Bowker are all only 70 days apart. Next year will be their age 27 season. (Milledge is two years younger.) I now have low expectations that any of these guys pan out. I would start Clement 30 games at first base down the stretch. I still think he has some potential, but he is out of options next year and has had less of an opportunity than Moss. If the teams rests Tabata and Cutch five games each Moss and Bowker can both get ten starts. Again, there is very little value in it, but it's better to see something as opposed to nothing at all.
Bullpen: I think Wil Ledezma, Chris Resop and Gallagher, all acquired for basically nothing later in the season, have a chance to compliment Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan next year. I would focus on those three with Joe Martinez being another guy to look at.
Summary: The last 39 games aren't likely to produce more than 10-15 wins regardless, so the team should take the time to see as much as they can from some of these guys rather than known quantities like Zach Duke, Jeff Karstens, Garrett Jones and Lastings Milledge. If even one guy turns out to give a good evaluation and ends up helping the club next year it will be playing time well spent.
The reality is this brutal season might get even worse the last forty games. The sobering thought is there are still glaring holes in next year's roster that are not going to buttressed by additions from a talented but extremely young minor league system.
And for the first time in three years, I really think John Russell could be gone at the end of the season. Too many fundamental errors by the players, too many lineups that make no sense and, simply put, too much losing. Time for Russell to go.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Smorgasbord: Dustin Johnson Edition and More

*Dustin Johnson clearly broke the Rules of Golf when he grounded his club on 18th hole at the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. And this is why golf sucks and is on its way to losing popularity just like tennis in the '80s. The average player doesn't want to pay $250 each time out. He doesn't want to have every round on a public or resort course take five hours. And he doesn't want to deal with the myriad rules that govern the game. Let the pros play 18 holes. Someone should start building 12-14 hole courses that take 2-3 hours to play and charge $50. I don't know if the economics can work, but it's worth looking at.

*The tiff between Golf Channel reporter Jim Gray and U.S. Ryder Cup captain Corey Pavin is latest stupid controversy in the sports world. The only thing dumber would be if Pavin chose NOT to select Tiger Woods with one of his captain's picks. Of course Tiger is going to be on the team. Nobody is "disrepected"by saying Tiger is going to be on the team. This is a non-story. But then again every golf story just became a non-story with Dustin Johnson's penalty.

*As for the devastatingly bad year Tiger Woods is having, he was just one of eleven players to make the cut in all four majors and he had the second lowest aggregate score behind only Phil Mickelson.

*Kansas City Royals pitcher Bryan Bullington was the first overall draft choice in the 2002 amateur draft. Since that time he has posted a career major league record of 0-7 and been released by three organizations. Sunday he pitched eight scoreless innings against the New York Yankees and earned his first win as the Royals held on 1-0. The Royals have only beaten the Yanks 1-0 two other times in history--and they happened during the same series, June 9 and 11, 1972.  I'll put the over/under on Bullington's career wins at three.

*The Dream Team was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend.  There has been plenty written about their accomplishments. Joe Poz has a great article here. No question the best stat has nothing to do with how they dismantled every team they played. The best stat is that Coach Chuck Daly never called a timeout during the 1992 Olympics.

*How is it even possible that James Dolan, owner of the New York Knicks, considered re-hiring former President of Basketball Operations Isiah Thomas as a consultant to the team? First, Thomas is currently employed as the head coach at Florida International and there is a clear conflict of interest were he also to be employed by a professional team. Second, while employed by the Knicks, Thomas was charged with sexual harassment and Madison Square Garden and James Dolan were ordered to pay $11.6 million in damages. Third, Thomas did such a devastatingly bad job during his first stint with the team that they are still trying to recover.  No wonder the Knicks have been the worst team in the NBA over the last ten years. James Dolan is a clown.

*I would have played Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger for at least a few snaps in the home exhibition opener against the Detroit Lions last night. It was an opportunity to take another step forward after his ugly off-season. He now has to wait another week or two to see what fan reaction will be. Why not just get it out of the way as soon as possible in front of the home crowd and give the media one less thing to speculate about?

*53 non-seniors made themselves eligible for this year's NFL draft, 46 were picked. As you might expect, 17 were taken in the first round and another eight in the second. The Pittsburgh Steelers led the NFL in taking five such players. The Tampa Bay Bucs were the only other team taking more than three. I think all five will make the Steelers 53 man roster.

*The upcoming week could be the most significant in the last 15-20 years for the Pittsburgh Pirates and it has nothing to do with what takes place on the field. Rather, the amateur draft signing deadline is midnight Monday and the Pirates are looking to sign their top two picks, pitchers Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie. Later in the week 16-year old free agent Mexican pitching sensation Luis Heredia is expected to sign with one of his many suitors. The Pirates are said to be a leading contender. If all three are added to the organization they will most likely immediately become the Pirates top three prospects. That kind of high-end talent could positively impact the franchise like nothing has during their 18 consecutive losing seasons.

The Dilemma of Jose Bautista

Jose Bautista is leading the major leagues with 36 home runs. Before this year he never hit more than 16 in a season. In fact, in his six years in the majors he had a total of 59 in over two thousand plate appearances. Hell, before this year he never hit more than 36 doubles in a season. Bautista, who turns 30 in October, had a career OPS of .729 coming into the year. This year it is .965. The five guys with a higher OPS are Miguel Cabrera, Josh Hamilton, Joey Votto, Albert Pujols and Kevin Youkilis.  You don't have to be Bill James to figure out which one is not like the others.

Bautista is having an outlier of a season that would make Malcolm Gladwell proud. Last year he was eligilbe for arbitrtion but he and his team, the Toronto Blue Jays, agreed to a one-year deal for $2.4 million, the same amount he made the year before. It is highly unusual for an arbitration-eligible player not to get a raise, so that pretty much tells you everything you need to know about Bautista and where he fit into the Blue Jays plans. Through 26 games this year he was hitting .203, had an OPS of .703 and had four home runs. His career was on life support.

Then he got hot. In May Bautista hit 12 homers. This was so far off his career numbers you can imagine Harry Doyle saying "JUST a bit outside," when he came to the plate. The hot streak brought his average up to .251 and his OPS to a Mantle-like .972.  

Of course this was not sustainable, and in June Bautista had two 2-home run games, but that was it. His batting average dropped to .228, his OPS to .884. Sabermetricans across the land could relax, mean reversion was a beautiful thing. Bautista made the all-star team but didn't get invited to participate in the Home Run Derby. His season had fluke written all over it.

But just like that Jose got hot again and in July he hit 11 more bombs. He got his average back up to .260 and his OPS to .964. And he's kept it there while adding five more home runs in August and leading the American League in walks.

Bautista has been solid in the field as well. He started the first nine games of the season in right field, but then started 27 of the next 31 at third base. Since then it's been mostly right field with the occasional start at third. Despite only starting 82 of the Jays 116 games in right he leads all major league outfielders in assists. If major league baseball named an All-Pro team like they do in the NFL, Jose Bautista would be the starting right fielder.

Now the big question. Jose Bautista turns 30 in October and has made about $8 million in his entire professional career. The Blue Jays control his rights for one more year and he is eligible for arbitration if he and the team don't agree to terms. After 2011 Jose will be eligible for free agency.

What do the Blue Jays do? They have a player entering the decline phase of his career who has never put up numbers remotely close to the ones he's putting up this year. If they go to arbitration, Bautista will likely be awarded $8-10 million and will be eligible to walk away from the team after the season. Should they offer him a multi-year contract and commit themselves to a player in his early thirties with little track record to suggest this performance is sustainable? Can they let the major league home run leader walk after next year when he has a body that suggests he may have five or six more productive seasons in him? What's the right number to offer him in dollars? In years?

How about the issue from Bautista's side? He has now locked in a big number for next year, most likely an amount that is greater than he has made in his entire career, combined. What should he do? Go to arbitration or sign a one-year deal and then roll the dice that he will have another great season and get a monster payday as a free agent in 2012? What if he reverts to his past performance going forward? Should he look for a longer term deal with the Jays and sign a contract that will set him up for life, most likely eschewing the chance for the huge contract free agency might bring?

Of the five players with a higher OPS listed above, Cabrera (age 27 season) recently signed an 8-year/$152 million deal. Hamilton (29), making $3.25 this year, will be eligible for arbitration for a second time and will get at least $10 million if he doesn't sign a longer term deal. Votto (26) will be eligible for arbitration for the first time. Pujols (30) will make $16 million next year, in the last year of his deal, and then will probably sign one of the biggest contracts in history and Youkilis (31) will make $12-13 million each of the next three years.

If I'm the Jays, I roll the dice and let Bautista go to arbitration. If he has another great year it will be very costly, but I have to see him do it again before I would tie up long-term money. If I'm Bautista, I tell my agent Bean Stringfellow to ask for a 4-year/$40 million deal. That deal doesn't bankrupt the team and it sets me up for life. If I have another great year I leave a lot of money on the table, but if I revert to my previous performance, I'll never see it.

My answer, 4-years/$32 million. Both sides should sign it today.

Update: Some have suggested there is no chance Jays GM Anthopoulos does that deal. I'm guessing they are right. I originally suggested 3-years/$20 million and was convinced by others there is no way Bautista does that deal. So the question is, where can a deal get done? Or is it arbitration and then free agency for Jose?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fire the General Manager

Seeing the title of this blog post and knowing I am a Pittsburgh Pirates fan, one would naturally assume I am about to inviscerate Bucs general manager Neal Huntington. After 115 games, the team is thirty-seven games under .500. If they lose their next two they will have twice as many losses as wins. It almost goes without saying they have the worst record in all of major league baseball. Of course Neal Huntington is today's pinata, right?

Nope. I actually think Huntington is on the right track. He was given a Herculean task when he took over the team three years ago, and while his work has borne no fruit at the major league level, I like his plan. The Pirates are still a couple years away from contending for a playoff spot, but there is a newfound hope. I'm a Neal Huntington fan.

No, today's whipping boy is Ned Colletti, general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers. The Dodgers are in the news most recently because of manager Joe Torre's decision to remove Jonathan Broxton from the closer's role. Torre's logic appears sound. Since July 9, Broxton has given up 10 runs in 10 innings and opposing batters have a .954 OPS in that span. In his place, up steps Taiwanese left-hander Hong-Chih Kuo. Kuo has been Rivera-like this season. He has a WHIP of 0.825, an ERA of 0.90 and a K/9 rate of 11.0 in 40 innings. While better, this season's numbers aren't far off Kuo's career numbers.

Kuo has a history of elbow problems so he won't often be used in back-to-back games. It is reported that relievers Kenley Jansen and Octavio Dotel will be called on to fill the closer's role in such situations. Jansen has pitched 7.1 career innings in the majors and struck out 11. He's yet to give up a run since coming up in mid-July. Dotel has pitched 3.1 meaningless innings since being acquired from the Pirates

How does Ned Colletti keep his job? I'm not here to tell you what a great trade Neal Huntington made in getting James McDonald and Andrew Lambo from the Dodgers in exchange for Dotel--but he did make a great trade. I'm asking how a general nanager can possibly give up TWO useful pieces for a guy who is slotted to be the third or fourth most-useful pitcher in his bullpen when his team is battling for third place in its division, seven or eight games out of first, and a similar long-shot for the wild card?

Seriously. Ned Colletti gave up a 25 year-old starting pitcher with a history of minor league success and a 21 year-old outfielder holding his own in AA for a 36 year-old reliever they might control next year if they mutually agree to exercise a $4.5 million option. McDonald already has more swing-and-miss potential than any Pirates starter above AA and Lambo has gotten off to a great start in Altoona.

This trade will go down as the best trade Neal Huntington's ever made if these two young players even approach their respective ceilings. It should go down as the worst trade Ned Colletti's ever made regardless of how they pan out.

Adding this move to a litany of others, again I ask, how does Ned Colletti keep his job?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

The Dominating Duo

During such a disappointing season, it's hard to believe the Pittsburgh Pirates have anything considered good, let alone the best in all of baseball. But there hasn't been a more dominating bullpen tandem than Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan. The save statistic gets all the attention and the Pirates off-season signing of Octavio Dotel was predicated on him sliding into the closer role. Consequently, Meek and Hanrahan have generally flown under the radar unless you're a hardcore baseball fan. But their numbers are ridiculous.  Here are the combined stats for the two.

                       G    IP      H     R   ER  HR  BB     K    WHIP   H/9   HR/9  BB/9  K/9
 Meek             48   58.1   35   14    8     3    16     49     0.874   5.4    0.6  2.5     7.6    .172/.238/.255/.493

Hanrahan     48   46.2   33   18   18*   5     14    65     1.007   6.4   1.0    2.7    12.5  .194/.267/.347/.614

Combined     --   105.0  68   32   26    8     30    114   0.933    5.8    0.9    2.6     9.8  .182/.251/.297/.548
Latos                  117.2  84   33   32   12    33    113   0.994    6.4     0.9     2.5    8.6  .195/.256/.307.563

166 batters in all of MLB qualify for the batting title as of August 3. Cesar Izturis of Baltimore is the runaway winner (or loser) in the OPS category with a .577 OPS. The next lowest are two Mariners, Jose Lopez and Chone Figgins at .601 and .622 respectively. The lowest in the National League is St. Louis catcher Yadier Molina at .638. The lowest qualifier on the Pirates is Latings Milledge at .716.

The best comp for the combined line of Meek and Hanrahan is probably Houston Astro Pedro Feliz. In 271 at bats Feliz's line is .218/.241/.310/.551. Ex-Pirate Nate McLouth's OPS of .544 got him sent to the minors. Meek and Hanrahan's numbers have been compiled against 374 at bats which makes them even more impressive. Aki Iwamura is almost the perfect comp in half the total number at bats with a line of .182/.292/.267/.558. Aki was a complete disaster during his time in Pittsburgh.

The closest pitching comp (which isn't really valid when comparing starters to relievers, but is illustrative) is Mat Latos the San Diego Padres starter who is having an unbelievable season.

When the team you root for is 33 games under .500 you look for silver linings. These two guys have been more like 24 karat gold. They are certainly worth watching.

*It is also worth a footnote that in his fifth outing of the year Hanrahan gave up 6 hits and 6 earned runs during the Pirates 20-0 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers. The Bucs were down 10-0 when Hanrahan entered the game in the seventh. Toss that line out of his totals and the numbers are even more impressive .168/.230/.286/.516, virtually identical to Meek's.