Tuesday, June 30, 2009

We've seen this before

Last year, it was Xavier Nady and Jason Bay.
This year, it's Nyjer Morgan and Nate McLouth.
The annual summer Garage Sale the Pirates hold got under way in June with the trading of two-thirds of their starting outfield. McLouth was traded to Atlanta for prospects and a starting pitcher in Charlie Morton who looks very, well, average.
Tuesday's deal sent Morgan and reliever Sean Burnett to the Washington Nationals for reliever Joel Hanrahan and outfielder Lastings Milledge.
Of course, general manager Neal Huntington says these trades are for the betterment of an organization that is bereft of minor league talent. In Morgan, the Pirates had a speedy outfield who personified the workman-like ethic Pittsburghers like in their athletes.
What they get in return for Morgan is a flake. Milledge, a first-round pick of the New York Mets, is on his third team in four seasons. He failed to hold the starting center field job with the Nationals, the worst team in the league, but lasted seven games. He hit .167, walked once in 24 at-bats and played a poor outfield. He has more power than Morgan - who doesn't - and that's what seems to intrigue the Pirates.
Milledge made a stir in his rookie year with the Mets when he high-fived the fans along his route to the outfielder after hitting a home run against the San Francisco Giants.
In May of his second season, it was reported that Milledge appeared in a rap song, "Bend Ya Knees," by Manny D, a childhood friend. The song contained the usual description of women in rap. The Mets distanced themselves from Milledge's actions and after the season traded him to Washington for outfielder Ryan Church and catcher Brian Schneider.
This trade didn't go over well in the Pirates clubhouse as Huntington begins the annual fire sale. Shortstop Jack Wilson told the Associated Pressc:
“What’s so shocking is we’re (six) games out and we’ve lost three of our everyday players. It’s tough for the guys who’ve been here and have seen these trades happen and absolutely do nothing. I’ve seen these trades two or three times a year and we still haven’t had a winning season.”
Good point.
Of course, Wilson won't have to worry about it much longer. He will either be traded before the deadline or leave as a free agent after the season. So will second baseman Freddy Sanchez and first baseman Adam La Roche.
It's just the Pirates way.

Pirates trade Morgan, Hinske, get Milledge

The Pittsburgh Pirates, swapping outfielders at a rapid rate for the second successive season, sent starting left fielder Njyer Morgan to the Washington Nationals in a four-player deal involving outfielder Lastings Milledge and also shipped backup Eric Hinske to the Yankees on Tuesday.
The Pirates, who have pushed to restock a thin farm system by making numerous trades over the last year, get Milledge and reliever Joel Hanrahan from the Nationals for the fleet Morgan and left-hander Sean Burnett, a former first-round draft pick.
Earlier, they sent 2002 AL Rookie of the Year Hinske to the Yankees for minor-league right-hander Casey Erickson and outfielder Eric Fryer. The Yankees also get some cash to help pay Hinske’s $1.5 million salary.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

You decide

Which of these two players were thought to be using performance-enhancing drugs? Barry Bonds or Darryl Strawberry.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Donald Fehr: A legacy derailed

At one point, Donald Fehr was the most powerful man in Major League Baseball. He might have been the most powerful leader of any labor movement in the United States. But when Fehr announced Monday that he would retire from his post, the legacy he had carved out early in his career had been siginificantly tarnished.

As head of the Major League Baseball Players Association, Fehr brought great riches to the players while keeping team owners and the commissioner at arm's length. Under Fehr, there was unprecedented growth, not only in contract money but in the popularity of the sport. In the late 1990s, baseball was actually making a run to overtake the National Football League as this country's most popular sport.

But Fehr ran the union with little regard to the game. That's why the average salary went from about $300,000 to $3 million in his 25 years of leadership. His negotiation tactics were born from a bullheadedness that was almost totally backed by the players. Not even a work stoppage that forced the postponement of the 1994 World Series seemed to slow him or his influence.

But performance-enhancing drugs did. When the use of steroids and other PED was finally revealed in the early part of this decade, Fehr suddenly seemed more like a co-conspirator of a gang of cheaters than the leader of a great union.

The figure who testified before Congress on steroid use did not look like the crusading leader that bouyed baseball and its players. One by one, the players who helped Fehr elevate interest in the sport, now looked pathetic as they also were called to testify. These immortals who were once sure-shot Hall of Famers now sparked debate about whether they should even be considered.

Fehr's influence in the game can't be underestimated. He was a moving force in propelling baseball to where it is today. But it's your view of how it got there that will determine how this man is judged.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Alvarez promoted

It's always interesting to watch the way organizations handle the minor league talent. In the case of Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates seem to have a plan in mind and won't let little things such as batting average and defense get in the way. He was moved to Class AA Altoona and will play his first game Tuesday.

Most people hope Alvarez rapidly progresses through the minors. It's no secret the Pirates need him to prosper for a number of different reasons. The Nutting Family won't look so cheap if he becomes a star, the minor league scouting won't look like incompetent boobs if he becomes a star, and the fans won't be so distracted by the losing if he becomes a star.

Here is what director of player development Kyle Stark told the Post-Gazette.

"Pedro has demonstrated to us that he is ready for the challenge. People typically focus on performance when it comes time for promotions, but we focus on the process and the specific things we're trying to accomplish at each level. Pedro has accomplished those things, in our minds. Plus, the performance actually has been better than the superficial numbers have shown for a while now."

In other words, yeah, his numbers are not so great for a college-aged player in high Class A baseball, but we don't care.

The 22-year-old Alvarez was hitting .247 with 14 home runs and 55 RBI. He has struck out 70 times in 243 at-bats. He has 13 errors in 66 games.

It's unlikely Alvarez will get a September call-up. Remember, he spent an entire summer sitting on his backside while his agent Scott Boras negotiated his contract so he missed nearly a year of organized ball. That also delayed his development in the Pirates' system.

Alvarez probably will become an outstanding player. How he reacts to Class AA ball will give us of indication of when that might happen.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Around the League

In the history of Major League Baseball, there have been only 20 games in which brother played against brother. No. 21 took place Saturday night when Jeff Weaver started against brother Jered when the Dodgers took on the Angels in an interleague game. The Elias Sports Bureau did the research from nearly 200,000 games. One of the coolest parts of the game was that their parents attended the game with mixed stitched uniforms. Dad wore a baseball shirt that said Do-Gels on the front and mom had one that said An-Dgers on the front. Dodgers won 6-4, Jered took the loss, and Jeff the win.

Kerry Wood has finally been able to help out the Chicago Cubs. The prized selection in the 1995 draft - the Cubs took him fourth - had been an underachieving, oft-injured and finally unwanted part of the Cubs machine. But over the weekend, Wood, now the closer for the Cleveland Indians, was scorched on back-to-back nights by the Cubs. He blew a save Friday and allowed the winning run on a wild pitch Saturday. In true unprofessional fashion, he refused comment following Saturday's game.

Jose Canseco is at it again. The former slugger wrote a tell-all book about steroid use in 2005 that led to the exposure of a number of high-profile players in the league. Now, he's suing Major League Baseball and the player's association because he believes the book release is causing him to be blackballed and his entry into the hall of fame blocked. That's pretty funny. But it might also be a legal first. Canseco is suing over a situation that he helped create. Can't wait to see who he calls as a witness.

When Jim Leyland, Detroit's manager, benched outfielder Magglio Ordonez for a few games because he is in a massive hitting slump, it angered Ordonez ... and his agent Scott Boroas. Boras believes the benching has to do with an option that pays Ordonez $15 million in 2010 if he reaches 540 at-bats. Leyland said the benching is because Ordonez stinks at the plate right now: 2 home runs and 22 RBI. He hasn't homered since April 27 and it's just possbile the 35-year-old Ordonez is finished. But baseball matters mean nothing to Boras, who is only concerned about the contract. It only makes himself more of a pariah to the game, not that Boras cares.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Say it ain't So-sa

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the name of Sammy Sosa was on a confidential list of Major League Baseball players who tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs.

Wait a moment, I need a chance to compose myself at this totally unexpected news.

OK, I was being facetious.

Most of the evidence against players such as Sosa has been anecdotal. Sosa was not an extremely powerful hitter when he came up with the Texas Rangers but in a span of four seasons, he broke Roger Maris' single-season home run mark of 61 three times. In two of those seasons - 1999 and 2001 - he didn't even lead the league in home runs.

Most fans couldn't care less about this issue but it is vitally important to baseball because so much of the comparison of players is based on numbers. In no other sports do numbers play such a role. Mention the number 714 and you know it's Babe Ruth's home run total, 56 (Joe DiMaggio's hitting streak), 511 (Cy Young's win total), etc.

Who is the NFL's leading rusher and what is his total? (Answer at the end)

Performance-enhancing drugs have turned slap hitters into power mongers. One suspected example was former Baltimore Outfielder Brady Anderson, who cracked 50 home runs in 1996. His previous best was 21 in 1992.

Cheating in baseball is nothing new. Players have done it throughout the game's history. But this era is different in that steroids allowed players to develop unnatural strength. Their numbers wiped away cherished records under suspicious circumstances.

Sosa's alleged cheating should keep him, and other like him, from being voted into the Hall of Fame, simply because we don't know what his career would have been had he not allegedly taken performance-enhancing drugs.

Oh, the answer is Emmit Smith, 18,355 yards. I had to look up the total.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Pirates tidbits

Dejan Kovacevic of the Post-Gazette reports that the Boston Red Sox have inquired about trade for shortstop Jack Wilson. Talks are reportedly only in the early stages but the Pirates have made it clear they do not intend to pick up the $8.4 million option next season.

Outfielder Andrew McCutchen is off to a sparkling start with the Pirates. The 11th pick in the 2005 draft, McCutchen has shown the potential to be a special player. In 49 at-bats through Sunday, he is hitting .327 with seven RBI and two stolen bases. More important, he is a player whose at-bats are a must-see for Pirates fans. They have not had many of those types of players.

Watching Detroit pitcher Dontrelle Willis struggle with control in a 6-3 loss to the Pirates was like watching a car wreck. It was hard to look away. Willis walked eight and gaveup six runs in three innings. More telling, as TV color man Bob Walk pointed out, was the Pirates helping Willis out by swinging at pitches early in the at-bat. Walk was right. The Pirates could have provided a first-inning knockout had they been more patient. It shows how little the Pirates players understand about game management.

Maybe I'm just drinking the kool-aid but I tend to agree with the Pirates drafting Tony Sanchez because he was signable. . . if the Pirates do what they say and use the savings to sign their higher selections. There was no Pedro Alvarez-type player available to them, so this strategy seems to make sense because there is still not a lot of talent in the minor leagues.

Best PR move of the season came in Sunday's game against Detroit, when the Pirates introduced members of the Penguins, fresh from a Stanley Cup championship, before the game. It was a classy move, even though the two organizations battle for ad dollars, attendance and better play in the newspapers.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The five worst No. 1 draft picks

Stephen Strasburg will become a very rich man this year, thanks to being picked No. 1 by Washington in this year's major league draft. But those riches do not always produce a productive player. The following is one writer's view of the five worst No. 1 picks in the draft's history.

1. Brien Taylor, LHP, N.Y. Yankees, 1991 - After being taken first out of Beaufort (N.C.) High School, Taylor held out for what was then the largest signing bonus is the sport's history: $1.5 million. In 1992 he was 6-8 for Fort Lauderdale, with a 2.57 ERA and 187 strikeouts in 161 innings. The next year, he tore his labrum in an offseason fight in Beaufort and was never the same. He was out of baseball by 1998 and became a brick layer.

2. Steve Chilcott, C, N.Y. Mets, 1966 - He was selected ahead of Reggie Jackson, among others, so you understand why the Mets struggled so much. Injuries derailed his career. A catcher from Antelope Valley High School in Lancaster, California, Chilcott is notable in that he and Taylor were the only No. 1 picks to not play a game in the major leagues.

3. Bryan Bullington, RHP, Pirates, 2002 – The Pirates were penny-pinching and not willing to go after the bigger names and better players in the draft, including BJ Upton, Prince Fielder, Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher, and Cole Hamels. Because of injuries and inconsistent pitching, Bullington has logged just 18 innings in the majors through 2008.

4. David Clyde, LHP, Texas Rangers, 1973 - Clyde stands as a living testament to the perils of rushing a pitcher to the majors. He was taken first out of Westchester High School in Houston and was supposed to head to the minors. But his contract called for two major league starts. He won the first start and pitched well in the second. Rangers' owner Bob Short kept him in the rotation more as a way to draw fans and he finished with a 4-8 record and 5.01 ERA. He developed arm problems and was out of the league by 1981.

5. Shawn Abner, OF, N.Y. Mets, 1984 - He was taken first in the 1984 draft out of Mechanicsburg High School in Pennsylvania but never played a major league game for the Mets. The Mets passed on Mark McGwire, Cory Snyder, Terry Mulholland, and Jay Bell. Abner, an outfielder, struggled in the minors and was traded in 1986 to Houston. His best year was 1992 when he hit .279 batting in 97 games with the White Sox. His career ended in 1995 because of injuries.

Pirates draft strategy

The selection of Tony Sanchez, a 21-year-old catcher from Boston College, on the first day of the major league draft, marked a different strategy for the Pirates from last season. In 2008, the organization spent most of its budget on first-rounder Pedro Alvarez, a power-hitting third baseman from Vanderbilt. He hasn't disappointed but is still a year away, at least, from the majors.

Sanchez was the top-rated catcher but predicted by most to be a mid- to late-first round selection. Drafts are never a perfect science but many of the prognosticators felt after pitcher Stephen Strasburg, the players ranked in the top 20 were nearly equal in ability at their positions.

So the Pirates choice to pick Sanchez, and have him signed, was important because it allowed them to spread more of the budget on their selections at the top of the draft.

The Pirates selected pitcher Victor Black of Dallas Baptist University at No. 49, pitcher Brooks Pounders of Temecula (Calif.) Valley High at No. 52 and center fielder Evan Chambers, 20, of Hillsborough (Fla.) Community College at 84.

The strategy seems sound. The Pirates minor league system was a mess when Neal Huntington was named GM and needs an infusion of talent. If the strategy works, Pittsburgh might have three or four above average players for the price paid to Alvarez last year.

One thing that struck me was that Sanchez's position, catcher, is the same as Ryan Doumit's. A position switch - first base, outfield? - seems to be coming for Doumit. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pirates take catcher

The Pirates made Tony Sanchez, a 21-year-old from Boston College, the No. 4 pick in the draft. The Pirates have already signed Sanchez, who was rated the top catcher in a pitcher-heavy draft. He was named a first team All-ACC player last season and led Boston College with a .355 average. He hit 14 home runs and drove in 53.

Monday, June 8, 2009

With the No. 4 pick in the draft, the Pirates . . .

will probably choose one of three pitchers. But a fourth is an intriguing wild card.

The guess here is that the Pirates will take Aaron Crow, a right-handed pitcher who was selected with the No. 9 pick in last year's Major League Baseball draft by the Washington Nationals. When the two sides could not agree on a contract, Crow spent the year pitching for the Fort Worth Cats of the American Association of Independent Baseball. He's 6-3, has a good fastball but struggles with control.

The Pirates could also go for Alex White, a right-handed pitcher from the University of North Carolina. He's 6-3, hits the mid-90s with his fastball, and has a nasty slider.

Tyler Matzek is a left-handed pitcher from Capastrano High School in California. He's 6-3, throws his fastball in the low-90s, and also possesses a curve, slider and change.

The most intriguing candidate is Tanner Scheppers, who was the Pirates second-round pick last season. Scheppers did not sign with the Pirates and spent the season with the independent St. Paul Saints. Last year, he did not pitch for Fresno State in the NCAA playoffs because of an injury. But he appears to be healthy now but his injury problems from last year will probably cause him to drop to the mid and late first round.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

McLouth deal from the other side

Here is the link to the Atlanta Journal Constitution coverage on the Nate McLouth trade.


Wednesday, June 3, 2009

McLouth is gone, and so are the Pirates hopes

Remember this little tidbit when it comes to judging whether people are telling you the truth. Do their actions match their words. In the Pirates world, they do not, at least not this year.

When the Pirates dealt All-Star outfielder Nate McLouth, arguably their most consistent hitter, to the Atlanta Braves for three prospects Thursday, it went against what president Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington had said about this season: that they were not writing off the year.

There is no attempt to win when you trade your best hitter. McLouth, only 27, hit .276 average last season with 26 homers and 94 RBI. He signed a three-year, $15.75 million deal in Feburary. This move is eerily similar to the ones last year, when the Pirates traded away Xavier Nady and Jason Bay. The season went down the drain after that.

Now that McLouth is gone, well, a record 17th-consecutive losing season is probably all but certain. The prospects the Pirates received for McLouth are, well, just that, prospects. Atlanta sent pitcher Charlie Morton, outfielder Gorkys Hernandez, and pitcher Jeff Locke to the Pirates. Who knows how good they will be. Locke and Hernandez are each 21 and Morton is 25. You will find out a few years from now.

Meanwhile, the Pirates will fill McLouth's spot with Andrew McCutchen, giving them one of the least powerful outfields in the majors.

If the Pirates are thinking about the future instead of the present, then make the move and tear up this team. Trade Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and Adam LaRoche before the deadline and go from there.

Just be honest about it.

Beating up on . . . Gatorade?

The Chicago Cubs either can't control their emotions in the dugout or they really dislike Gatorade. The club installed a new machine for the season, a dispenser of the soothing liquid on the hot days in Chicago. But now, the dispenser is being removed after suffering two attacks in the span of a week.

First, pitcher Ryan Dempster sent a forearm shiver into the machine after being pulled from a game against the Pirates. The blow dislodged the front plate that showed what type of Gatorade was available. A few days later, pitcher Carlos Zambrano took a bat to the machine after being ejected from a game, again against the Pirates. The machine has been leaking liquid ever since.

Fits of rage are nothing new to baseball. Heck, former Pirates manager Lloyd McClendon had one that was reshown again and again by ESPN when he removed a base from the ground and took it with him to the dugout, making him the first manager to steal a base without getting a hit.

As for the Chicago massacre, Dempster seemed genuinely disappointed the machine was being removed.

Dempster told the LA. Times: "It would have been more entertaining [to keep it], that's for sure. I'm going to miss it. It's part of our team. I gave it a big hug."

Now word yet on what will take its place.

How about a nice water fountain, made out of quarter-inch steel plating?

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

A major-league city?

Altoona is home to the Curve, the Class AA affiliate of the Pirates.

But the Blair County city once had a major-league team.

The year was 1884, and a new league, christened the Union Association, was ready to challenge the other two established major leagues, the National League and American Association.

The UA had seven members and wanted an even eighth, so league founder Henry Lucas allowed Altoona's team, known collectively as the Mountain City, to be admitted. Lucas promptly scheduled eight of Altoona's first 11 games against his own St. Louis Maroons.

According to David Nemec in his book "The Beer and Whisky League," Altoona lost all of those games to St. Louis on the way to opening the season 0-11. After 25 games, the Mountain City called it quits at 6-19.

The team's best player in its brief existence was George "Germany" Smith, who hit .315 and went on to play 15 seasons in the majors, albeit finishing with a lifetime .243 average. He was the starting shortstop on two pennant-winning teams, the Brooklyn Bridegrooms (later Dodgers) of 1889 in the American Association and 1890 in the National League.

By the way, baseball statistics-history guru Bill James heavily disputes the Union Association's standing as a major league, contending that no one considered it as such until decades after the fact.

For now, though, Altoona can call itself a major-league city ... old-school.