Littlefield, Sauveur Sightings Highlight Minor League Games

My job takes me on the road to large cities throughout the Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana region. For the first time since I’ve had this gig, I’ve been able to take in a couple of minor league games.

First stop was the Louisville Bats vs. the Pawtucket Red Sox. I arrived at the game when the gates opened, which allowed me to park a couple blocks away on the street for free (sweet). Tickets were cheap, just $6 for a seat down the line in right two rows up. It was $1 beer tailgate night ($1 beers from the time the gates open until game time). So, the after work 20-something crowd was out in full force. As I lingered in the outfield watching BP, the guy working with the PawSox pitchers looked vaguely familiar. So, I did some digging. Turns out the PawSox pitching coach is none other than former Pirates pitcher Rich Sauveur. I wanted to watch their starter (Michael Bowden) warm up. So, I headed toward the PawSox bullpen. A few minutes later Mr. Sauveur was there conversing with someone he knew in the stands, a mere two seats away from me. During a break in their conversation, I looked over and casually said, “Hey, you’re Rich Sauveur, right?” I think I blew him a way a little. I told him I was a big Pirates fan (I happened to be wearing a circa 1990 Andy Van Slyke jersey t-shirt). I also happened to casually know a guy he played with in the minors and mentioned his name, telling him that the gentleman resided here in Louisville.

Onto the game. Neither Bowden nor Reds starter Homer Bailey were impressive. Bailey especially got hit hard. His fastball topped out at 94 and the PawSox hit several balls on the nose. They had three runners thrown out at home, saving the game. Bailey struck out only one hitter. But the Bats prevailed.

Last night (and this morning) I’m in Indianapolis. Lucky me, I just picked up Indiana and will get a chance to see the Buccos AAA team play. Low and behold, the PawSox are in town. I got a ticket from a customer (20 rows up, behind the plate – nice). But there is no on the street parking. So, despite arriving 90 minutes before game time, I’m paying $5. But it was $1 hot dog night.

I wanted to see their starter (Charlie Zink) warm up, mostly because he tosses a knuckleball. So, once again I lingered by the visitors bullpen. Mr. Sauveur came out, looked at me and said, “Hey, how are you?” I told him I was fine and returned the question. He told me he was dead tired and moved on. I don’t think he quite put it all together that I had seen him last Thursday in Louisville. Zink’s knuckler looked pretty good.

About the second inning, I’m looking around the area, checking out the guys who are obvious scouts. Among them is none other than Dave Littlefield. So, between innings a little while later, I saunter over, extend my hand and say, “Mr. Littlefield, I’m a huge Pirates fan.” We talked for a few moments. He said he was working for the Cubs and was in town doing some scouting. He asked me what I did and I told him that I sold paper, kind of like the the TV show “The Office”. He said he didn’t catch much TV. But asked if my industry was hurt by newspapers and the like not selling as much. I told him that my market was primarily affected by foreign imports. The inning was getting ready to start again, so I let him get back to work. He seemed like a genuinely nice guy. Later in the game, I noted he was talking with the Indians GM, Cal Burleson.

On with the game, Ty Taubenheim and Zink both pitched pretty well. Jason Davis, not so much. He was wild and was hurt by a Steve Pearce error. After giving up two runs in the 8th, Davis let the first three runners on in the 9th before giving way to Chris Bootcheck. The Pirates escaped damage when Bootcheck whiffed Paul McAnulty on a 96 mph heater and then got a 6-4-3 DP to end the inning. Bootcheck tossed it like a man making a case for another chance at the majors.Very impressed.

Andrew McCutchen had three hits and threw a runner out at second trying to stretch a single into a double. It was the first time I’ve had a chance to see him play. I was impressed with his speed. He looks like a guy who doesn’t have much left to prove in the minors. His body build reminds me of Raghib Ismail. Not sure if that is good or bad. I look at him and think that he can’t possibly hold up over 150+ starts in the Majors. Hopefully, I’m wrong.


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Benedict added as Special Assistant to Huntington

Neal Huntington hired Jim Benedict as a special assistant yesterday. The two men worked together in Cleveland, where Benedict toiled as a scout for the past two seasons. He has also worked with the Yankees, Dodgers, Expos and Rangers over the years. I know very little about him, and some Google searching turned up nothing of interest.

Benedict will be replacing Jesse Flores, who spent only one year in that position under Huntington. Flores will now supervise scouting in the West Coast region for the Pirates.

Flores was hired as the special assistant when Dave Littlefield joined the Pirates in 2001, and remained in that position until yesterday. Huntington continues to reshape the front office, transforming it from a Littlefield regime to one of his own.

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Sending a message

With the August 15th draft pick signing deadline approaching, there has obviously been quite a bit of talk about Pedro Alvarez. His drafting represented a change of strategy by Pirate management, being that he has loads of upside, is represented by Scott Boras, and will likely require a hefty bonus to complete the deal. As we near the deadline, many fans are growing nervous that the Pirates may not sign him. If they donít, much of the luster from the improved 2008 draft will be dulled.
One opinion about this matter really irks me, though. I have heard many people say something along the lines of, ďThe Pirates have to sign Alvarez to prove to the fans that they are serious about winning.Ē Wrong. Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington owe nothing to the fans except sound and rational baseball decisions. That is why they were hired, and that should be their focus.
I understand that we have suffered through approximately 15.5 years of misery. I understand that, for the majority of those years, Pirate management has made countless poor decisions, and often has done so with dubious motivations. I understand why we feel that we deserve more. I understand, because I was there.
But making a decision to send a message to fans is something old management would have done. Remember when Dave Littlefield sent a message by acquiring Jeromy Burnitz, Joe Randa and Sean Casey? The following year he sent another message by trading for Matt Morris and taking on his entire salary. He proved that the Pirates were willing to add salary. But that was a lot of money wasted with the goal being to satisfy the fan base, not to improve the franchise.
Now I am not saying that missing out on Alvarez would be acceptable. The Pirates absolutely need to sign him, as he is a huge ingredient in their rebuilding process. My point is that he needs to be signed to help the team win, not to appease the fans. If he is asking for a $10 million bonus, and the Pirates feel that would cripple the franchiseís future, they should be willing to walk away. Regardless of the inevitable backlash from fans.
As a small market franchise, the Pirates need to make unpopular decisions to remain competitive. The new regime proved that they were willing to do that with the recent trades. They traded away two of our most popular and productive players, because we needed the ability to field a team after 2009. Now there is a chance to do that, even as much of the fan base looks upon those trades as a simple salary dump.
Maybe the new regime has not yet proven themselves to you. Maybe you need them to sign Alvarez to be satisfied. Maybe you need much more than that. I, for one, am convinced. They have done everything they said they would do. They improved international and domestic scouting, went after impact talent in the draft, and dealt the teamís valuable veterans for young talent instead of gearing up for a run at a winning season. Thatís enough for me.
But none of this should matter to Coonelly and Huntington. They should not care what you think, or what I think. They need to do whatís best for this team, something they have done time and again. When the Pirates are once again a winning franchise, all fans will be satisfied.

Goodbye to Jason Bay

At some point early in 2007, I realized the Pirates needed to trade Jason Bay sooner rather than later. They simply did not have the talent necessary to build a competitive team around him. Obviously, the thought of Dave Littlefield executing a trade of Bay scared the hell out of me. I was terrified that I might wake up one morning and read that Bay had been dealt for Mark Grudzielanek.
But Littlefield never got that opportunity. Ownership replaced him, along with the rest of the front office, with very competent people late last season. On Thursday, Bay was finally traded. And it wasnít for garbage. The Pirates received a great group of young players in the deal. But that doesnít make it any easier.
I pulled up the Red Sox game on my computer last night. And I watched as Jason Bay stepped to the plate in an unfamiliar uniform. Boston fans stood and gave him a loud ovation, warmly welcoming a player that deserved every moment of their applause. Bay tipped his cap and attempted to step into the box. As the unrelenting cheers continued, he called time and stepped back out. With all of the emotions I was experiencing, I could only imagine what was running through his head. I was extremely happy for him, suddenly thrust into a pennant race with home fans that immediately adored him. I also felt some frustration. For some reason, the fans in Pittsburgh never appreciated him in the way he deserved. No matter how well he performed, many remained unimpressed. And I was also sad. He should have been in that situation in Pittsburgh. He should have experienced winning baseball with us.
In the early part of this decade, I inadvertently began paying less attention to the Pirates. I was finishing high school and heading to college, and I was worried more about things like my social life than baseball. In 2004, I had kind of a baseball resurgence. It started with a four-day, five-city trip in June. Several friends and I attended games in Detroit and Cincinnati before making our way to Wrigley Field for a Pirate game. I attended numerous games over the remainder of the season, as my focus returned to the game and the team that I had always loved. Of course, Bay was in the middle of his Rookie of the Year campaign. I was recalling how important the Pirates were to my life, and Bay was leading the charge.
Since then, there have been several memorable moments. Two eight RBI games. 96 home runs in a four game span. 21 stolen bases in 22 attempts. The sight of Bay bowling over the catcher to beat the Astros in the 18th inning. The 2006 All-Star game at PNC Park. The standing ovation he received as he left the field on the final day of the 2005 season, after finishing a remarkable year in which he played in all 162 games. The way he played through painful knee injuries, without making it public in any way. His revival this year after a dreadful, injury-filled 2007 season. I remember sitting just above the left field wall for a game in 2005. On a drive to the track, Bay threw himself forcefully into the fence, making the catch. This was just a few feet from where I was sitting. I think that single play made him one of my favorite players.
You know that feeling you get when a close friend moves out of town? Or when you break up with a longtime girlfriend/boyfriend? After spending much of your time with that person for years, you suddenly realize that you may never see them again. That comfort of familiarity is abruptly jerked away from you. Thatís how I feel right now about Bay. In the occasional blowout, when Bay is replaced in left field, there is an eerie feeling in the air. Something just isnít right. Every game from this point forth will have that same feeling. Left field at PNC Park belongs to Jason Bay. And it will be quite a while before that changes.
Good luck, Jason Bay. You have given this team and this city more than we ever expected. You have earned the chance to play for a ring, and I look forward to watching you play for that opportunity in October.

2008 Preview – Andrew McCutchen

Top prospect Andrew McCutchen hit his first hurdle in 2007. Beginning the season at Double-A Altoona, he struggled badly from the start. As the season continued, his play improved and his numbers slowly increased. However, he was still only at .258/.327/.383 in early August. Despite the fact that McCutchen had not shown he could sufficiently handle Double-A pitching, he was promoted to Indianapolis with Neil Walker and Dave Davidson. This was one of Dave Littlefieldís final desperate decisions made in an effort to save his job. McCutchen actually hit fairly well in Indy, albeit with little patience or power. He posted a .313/.347/.418 line in 67 at-bats.
An interesting trend with McCutchen is his ability to hit well after any in season promotion. Late in 2005, after hitting .297/.411/.430 in Rookie Ball, he was promoted to Williamsport in the New York-Penn League. He responded with a .346/.443/.442 line in 52 at-bats to finish the year. After a solid season with Hickory in 2006 (.291/.356/.446 in 453 at-bats), he made the jump all the way to Altoona. Suddenly, this 19-year-old kid was in the middle of a Double-A pennant race. He responded by hitting .308/.379/.474 in 78 at-bats. And we have already discussed his 2007 season, in which he followed the same tendencies.
There are a few possibilities that I can think of that could cause this pattern. It is possible that McCutchen is motivated to make an impression when he arrives at a new level. Maybe he hits well when he faces a league for the first time, before scouting reports begin circulating. In his initial promotion to Altoona in 2006, he started off red-hot before slowing down and struggling in the playoffs. Those struggles continued into the 2007 season. However, he did improve as the temperature rose. It will be interesting to watch how McCutchen makes adjustments as he works his way through Triple-A, and eventually into Pittsburgh. Another possibility is that this trend means nothing, that it is simply a random occurrence.
So what does 2008 have in store for McCutchen? Most likely, he will start the season as the Indianapolis Indiansí centerfielder. If he performs well, he could find himself in Pittsburgh by summer. Realistically, I expect him to spend the season in Indy, and join the Pirates in September. In April 2009, Andrew McCutchen will take the field at PNC Park as the Piratesí starting centerfielder.

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Pirates News and Notes: Search for bullpen help continues

  • The Pirates are continuing their quest for a right-handed reliever. Two names mentioned in todayís Post-Gazette are Shawn Chacon and Octavio Dotel. Chacon, who turns 30 on Sunday, was effective for the Pirates last season in a long relief role. He also started four games and saved another. Overall, he posted an ERA of 3.94, but his walk totals continued to be a concern. Chacon walked 4.5 batters per nine innings in 2007, which was only slightly better than his career mark of 4.67. That lack of control likely will always be an issue. Dotel, 34, was a dominant reliever with Houston early in this decade, posting ERAís of 2.66, 1.85 and 2.48 in 2001-2003. He has battled injuries the past few seasons, and has struggled with control problems over that period. However, his strikeout numbers have remained high. Last season, he struck out 41 and walked 12 in 30.2 innings split between Kansas City and Atlanta. Both Chacon and Dotel would likely command a salary over $4 million.
  • The Cubs hired Dave Littlefield yesterday as a scout. Maybe he can convince them to give Aramis Ramirez back.
  • The Pirates added four instructors to their minor league staff. The new infield coordinator is Carlos Garcia, a second baseman with the team in 1990-1996. He was the lone Pirates representative when Three Rivers Stadium hosted the MLB All-Star game in 1994. In November 1996, he was involved in the trade with Toronto that brought Craig Wilson and Abraham Nunez to the Pirates. Also, Troy Buckley was added as the teamís minor league pitching coordinator and Kimera Bartee will be in charge of outfield and baserunning. Brad Fischer will be the catching coordinator, the first time the franchise has employed a person in that position.
  • The Pirates signed two free agent pitchers to one year, minor league contracts. Right-handed starter Adam Bernero, 31, will join the organization after missing last season due to elbow surgery. Also, Masumi Kuwata signed with the Bucs after the team released him last season. I really like Kuwata and he was a nice story last year, but there is no reason for him to show up in Pittsburgh again in 2008. As soon as hitters realized how slow he was throwing, he was absolutely pounded last year.

Neal Huntington: “We need above-average players”

An interview with Piratesí general manager Neal Huntington was published at Baseball Prospectus on Sunday. It is an interesting read that gives us a bit more insight into the teamís plans, both in the near and distant future. For some analysis, check out any of these posts. However, it was one simple quote at the end of the interview that interested me:

I feel we need above-average players across the board, and thatís what weíre working to put together in Pittsburgh.

It seems simple, right? If you want to win, acquire players who are superior to other players in the league. However, Dave Littlefield and company never seemed to understand this concept. They appeared determined to find an average player for each position, then sit back and relax. (Or maybe there were other factors involved?)
Here is a look at the Piratesí 2007 stats, compared with the National Leagueís average stats for each position:
National League 2007 Average
C – .257/.318/.394
1B – .284/.365/.481
2B – .272/.341/.418
3B – .280/.348/.456
SS – .279/.337/.420
LF – .278/.358/.478
CF – .273/.336/.426
RF – .275/.344/.442
2007 Pirates
Ronny Paulino – .263/.314/.389
Adam LaRoche – .272/.345/.458
Freddy Sanchez – .304/.343/.442
Jose Bautista – .254/.339/.414
Jack Wilson – .296/.350/.440
Jason Bay – .247/.327/.418
Nate McLouth – .258/.351/.459
Xavier Nady – .278/.330/.476
As you can see, this was an unimpressive group last season. Sanchez, Wilson and McLouth were slightly above average for their position; the rest of the lineup was about average or far below. Of course, this is no astonishing revelation. If you are reading a Pirate blog in December, I assume you know that the Pirate offense has been mediocre at best. However, the problem has been that Littlefield was content with that. His plan, if you believe he had one, was to let this group play until they reached free agency. When that time came, he would figure something out. But two years down the road was much too far into the future to consider.
The Pirates are not going to pick up a superstar in free agency. Maybe they can draft and develop one (or maybe even more than one?). I hope they do. But they have a better chance of securing above average players at each position. Huntington has done a good job thus far of saying the right things. I remain cautiously optimistic that his actions will speak even louder.