Neal Huntington

I am listening to an interview with Neal Huntington on 104.7 right now, and I thought I should reiterate how refreshing it is to listen to him. He is honest, intelligent and enthusiastic any time he discusses his work with the Pirates. You get the impression that he could sit there and talk baseball for hours. I will leave you with this quote from a recent chat, which exemplifies everything that I appreciate about him as a general manager.

I did not come to Pittsburgh to be popular; I came to Pittsburgh to build a consistent championship caliber organization

That is all. Please return to real life.

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An alternate 2009 – Part one

In December, I tried to show that keeping Jason Bay would not have made the Pirates a competitive team in 2009. Looking back, I don’t like the process I used in that analysis. For starters, I used each player’s 2008 production instead of a 2009 projection. I also didn’t project the whole roster. So let’s try it again. Now that the season has concluded, let’s see how the season would have transpired if management refused to rebuild.

Let’s pretend the Pirates held on to every veteran starter that was here in April 2008. From Xavier Nady to Nyjer Morgan, from Nate McLouth to John Grabow. If a trade did not remove a major piece from the major league roster (such as the Delwyn Young and Tyler Yates deals), I assumed that it still occurred. Using a spreadsheet created by Sky Kalkman, I estimated each player’s total plate appearances and Wins Above Replacement (WAR). For position players, I used wOBA from FanGraphs. Stolen bases and caught stealings are incorporated in this version of wOBA, so I assigned each player an average base running value. For fielding value, I calculated the mean of UZR/150 and John Dewan’s plus/minus system. I used tRA*0.92 (which puts tRA on the ERA scale) for pitchers. The results are below (full spreadsheet is located here). 

Player PA wOBA WAR Player IP tRA*0.92 WAR
Ryan Doumit 304 .306 0.6 Paul Maholm 194 3.91 3.3
Ronny Paulino 296 .334 1.3 Zach Duke 213 4.58 1.9
Raul Chavez 100 .277 0.0 Tom Gorzelanny 150 4.46 1.6
Adam LaRoche 629 .357 1.6 Ian Snell 145 5.33 0.2
Steve Pearce 30 .297 0.0 Ty Taubenheim 50 4.90 0.3
Eric Hinske 266 .344 0.6 Virgil Vazquez 44 5.13 0.1
Freddy Sanchez 489 .322 1.5 Brad Lincoln 75 6.19 -0.4
Delwyn Young 258 .316 -0.2 Donnie Veal 10 6.37 -0.1
Ramon Vazquez 459 .283 -1.1 Jason Davis 59 4.21 0.8
Jack Wilson 402 .286 1.4
Brian Bixler 100 .269 -0.2 Matt Capps 54 4.73 -0.2
Jose Bautista 500 .339 2.5 Sean Burnett 57 5.18 -0.4
Nyjer Morgan 316 .340 1.7 John Grabow 72 3.97 0.5
Nate McLouth 591 .356 2.1 Evan Meek 47 3.96 0.2
Andrew McCutchen 493 .361 2.2 Jesse Chavez 67 4.99 -0.3
Xavier Nady 29 .320 -0.1 Denny Bautista 13 4.03 0.0
Jason Bay 638 .396 3.3 Steven Jackson 43 4.33 0.1
  Donnie Veal 15 6.37 -0.1
  Chris Bootcheck 14 4.11 0.0
  Tyler Yates 12 6.46 -0.2
  Phil Dumatrait 13 8.38 -0.3
  Damaso Marte 13 4.92 -0.1
  REPLACEMENT 85 5.50 -0.9

A few explanations. For simplicity, I assumed that Young, Eric Hinske and Ramon Vazquez were the only pinch hitters used all season. For pitchers that did not actually pitch in the majors this year (such as Brad Lincoln), I used their projected FIP according to CHONE. I assigned a generic 5.50 ERA to the final 85 innings of relief pitching, assuming the Pirates would simply find some pitchers off the scrap heap.

Add everything together and we come up with 71.4 expected wins. That’s right. If the Pirates kept every one of their major league players, they would have been a 90-loss team. They would have had a 5.63% chance of lucking into 81 wins. The chance of reaching 91 wins (and potentially competing for the postseason)? 0.08%.

But what if the Pirates added a couple starting pitchers through free agency? Just raise the payroll a bit, and the wins will come. Sign Braden Looper and Jon Garland. Nope. Signing Looper and Garland actually drops the expected win total to 69.9 wins, with a 3.34% chance of reaching 81 wins and a 0.03% chance of notching 91 wins.

The Pirates were never going to compete with the players inherited by Neal Huntington. Dave Littlefield saw to that. With the majority of the offense preparing for free agency, a complete overhaul was necessary.

In Part Two, I will examine how aggressively the Pirates would have needed to be in free agency to compete in 2009.

Avoid free agency

Neal Huntington stated in today’s Post-Gazette that the Pirates plan to be more aggressive in the free agent market this offseason. The players mentioned in the article are a great reminder of why the Pirates should mostly avoid free agency until they get farther along in the rebuilding process. Dejan notes that some recently traded players are possibilities, mentioning Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson and John Grabow as the most likely. Jack and Freddy have both been disappointments since they were traded, performing poorly and battling injuries. Jack has never shown much with the bat, and Freddy is now two years removed from his last productive offensive season. Both are relying only on defense at this point, and are likely to see their production decline further as they age and injuries become more frequent. The Pirates could use some left-handed bullpen help, so I wouldn’t mind bringing Grabow back if the price were right.

Another player mentioned in the article is Rick Ankiel. Ankiel has performed poorly for the Cardinals this year, hitting .234/.286/.390 for a wOBA of .290. He posted above average numbers in 2007 and 2008, so there is some thought that he could bounce back. I just don’t see it, though. Ankiel has had a strange career, moving from the mound to the outfield in his mid-twenties, so it is somewhat hard to project his future. But he only had two productive years before falling apart in his age 29 season. He has been a bit unlucky this season, supported by a .284 BABIP. But even if we neutralize for luck, that only brings him up to an approximate line of .251/.302/.407. His walk rate is down to just 6.4% this year, the result of chasing 33.7% of pitches outside the strike zone. His ISO has also dropped to .157, down 85 points from last year. Defensively, Ankiel plays a solid corner outfield and can handle center in a pinch. He seems like the kind of mediocre hitter that had a few solid seasons during his prime years and hit a wall as he approached 30. Essentially, he’s Brandon Moss, only more expensive, four years older, without the limited upside.

That is my point. For the most part, anyone that arrives through free agency will be approaching 30 years of age. Since we are talking about the Pirates, who will never sign a Mark Teixiera or a CC Sabathia, it is unlikely to be someone who is much of an upgrade over who is already here. The Pirates should not be trying to eke out a few extra wins in 2010. There is simply not enough talent on the roster to compete, and there is no difference between 70 wins and 75 wins. The focus should be on figuring out who might be a part of the future. I have serious doubts about Ronny Cedeno, Delwyn Young, Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss, Garrett Jones, Steve Pearce, Jeff Clement, Charlie Morton, Kevin Hart, etc. But these are all players that have had success in the minor leagues, are cheap, and are still young enough to possess some upside. I highly doubt Ankiel will be much better than Moss, Jones or Pearce in 2010. I doubt Jack Wilson or Freddy Sanchez will be a large upgrade over Cedeno or Young. They may actually be worse. The Pirates currently have a large group of question marks on the roster. The goal of 2010 should be to figure out which players can help the team for the next few years.

The Pirates nearly missed out on some very good solid years of Freddy Sanchez because of a commitment to playing Joe Randa. They certainly wasted a few valuable years of Craig Wilson, blocking him with useless players like Jeromy Burnitz and Randall Simon. This year, management decided to give Nyjer Morgan an opportunity to play, instead of playing veteran mediocrity like Eric Hinske or Craig Monroe over him. They were rewarded with a career year from Nyjer, and eventually an impact talent in Lastings Milledge. Other than some bullpen help and maybe a bench player or two, the Pirates should completely avoid free agency. Look for some freely available talent instead.

Huntington’s Trades and My Golf Game

Depending on who you talk to, my fanaticism regarding the Pirates is stupid, sadistic or unwarranted. Or perhaps all of the above and then some. It has been too long since the team has made a string of moves that put the club in better shape. It reminds me of my golf game. Having played baseball and basketball up through high school and generally shunning golf because it was expensive, time consuming and didn’t involve playing defense, my golf game as it stands now is terrible. I play once (maybe twice) a year. However, on any given hole I’m liable to make one decent shot – off the tee, from the fairway (if I’ve found it), out of a bunker or the rough or maybe sink a decently long put. However, I am unable to put together several decent shots in a row. If I did, I maybe could be a bogey golfer. Instead I normally break 120. That’s like the Pirates – they might make a good move (getting Jason Bay for Brian Giles, getting Brian Giles for Ricardo Rincon), but they have failed to make several good moves in a row. So, instead of being respectable, the Pirates are quite poor. Year after year.

Instead of addressing the situation head on – playing more golf, taking some lessons, studying the game – the Pirates have relied on patch work moves (going to the driving range and hitting 50 balls a few days before my annual round) like signing aging veterans and hoping that maybe the club will reach respectable win total (bogey golf). It hasn’t worked.

Given that I’m headed to Pittsburgh on Saturday for my annual weekend of Bucco games at PNC with my brother, I’m saddened that I won’t see many players that I’ve seen in the past. However, Neal Huntington recognizes that the strive for mediocrity is not the way to get the fan base excited. His trades have been difficult, but his philosophy is correct. Rebuild the team from the ground up. Maybe, maybe in two to three years this club will be shooting par and making a run into September. That’s what I’m hoping for.

In the meantime, how do you sell this club to the casual fan over the next couple of years? How do you get people in a down economy to buy tickets to watch a team that won’t compete? Clearly this team will not contend in 2010, barring some unforseen move(s) or player development. The “come see ’em while they are young and hungry” approach has been used before by this club. And if the players don’t hustle (Lastings Milledge on Tuesday night for example) when they hit infield grounders, the fans aren’t going to want to watch a club that loses and doesn’t play hard. Huntington has his work cut out for him in two areas – building a talented club and keeping the operation profitable while the product struggles on the field. Whether the club posts a bogey or a snowman, I’ll be watching (and still avoiding improving my golf game). Call me what you will.

Pirates option Snell to Indy

Ian Snell has been optioned to Triple-A Indianapolis and, unsurprisingly, he is not taking it well. In this interview, he answered questions in a nonsensical manner and became defensive with reporters. He also claimed to have made the decision to go to Indy, saying that there was too much negativity with the major league club. As usual, he pointed fingers at everyone but himself.

Here are a few of the stranger quotes from Snell today. I believe this is Dejan Kovacevic asking the questions.

Q. So they left it up to you?

A. No, I left it up to myself. I wasn’t going to allow them to say what they want. I told them I want to go down. It’s best for the team.

Q. What do you need to do down there?

A. Nothing, really.

Q. Just get more efficient?

A. Nothing. You guys don’t understand it, nobody’s going to understand it unless you played baseball.

Q. Would you prefer this over a major league bullpen assignment?

A. It’s not my decision. Whatever, it didn’t matter. I said I want to go down. So, it’s my decision. I think that’s best for me and best for the team.

Bizarre responses right there, almost just a stream of consciousness from Snell. If you listen to the audio, you also hear some hostility between Snell and I believe John Perrotto. Snell seems to be someone that reads all of his press clippings and takes all criticism personally. Maybe today’s conflict stemmed from Perrotto’s post this morning, criticizing management for keeping Snell in the rotation.

Many have blamed Ian’s struggles over the past two years on a lack of mental toughness, but I have never been a big supporter of that theory. Snell is a silly guy that says and does goofy things, but that is not necessarily the root of his issues. I’ve always felt it was erratic command and a pretty limited arsenal beyond his fastball and slider, not to mention an inability to pitch inside. But I have to admit, Snell sounds thoroughly defeated in that audio clip. His defensive responses to questions and his swiftness to deflect blame to others seem to be a clear attempt to veil a lack of confidence, at least in my mind.

So, what is Snell’s future in Pittsburgh? I am generally not one to fall victim to knee-jerk reactions, but I am not very optimistic about Snell. I think the following quote from Neal Huntington (via the PBC Blog) says quite a bit about management’s feelings on the enigmatic pitcher. Huntington essentially says that Snell cannot handle the pressure of playing major league baseball. Not exactly a vote of confidence.

I think when a player struggles, the best and most successful players block it out. The ones that aren’t able to, it wears on them. I think in Ian’s case for the better part of a year and a half now he has not felt like he has been supported by the fans because he has struggled, and he has not been able to block that out. I think it will be a big step for Ian as it is with all players to make that jump. You go see triple A baseball, and there are guys that have more talent than guys do in the major leagues. But you put that second and third deck on and self-imposed pressure begins to take over. We all have to deal with stress in our jobs every single day. Some people deal with it quickly.

UPDATE (8:55 PM): Virgil Vasquez will start in Charlie Morton’s spot on Friday.  Morton and his tender hamstring will be pushed back to take Snell’s scheduled start on Sunday.

40-Man Roster

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Romulo the latest victim of accountability?

The Pirates sent Romulo Sanchez to minor league camp today, along with Pedro Lopez, Miguel Perez and Daniel Haigwood. It certainly seems as if the Pirates were unhappy with Romulo, and were attempting to make a statement by optioning him. Said Neal Huntington:

He’s got a lot of delivery work to do, and we felt that it was best that he do that outside of major league camp, with the way he came into spring training. He’s got a great arm and still has a future with us, but he’ll have to work his way back to the majors. He wasn’t in line to make this club.

Romulo is a big guy, officially listed at 260 pounds. I would not be surprised if he arrived at camp a bit out of shape, although I have not seen anything to back that up.


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Russell’s contract extended

The Pirates extended manager John Russell’s contract through 2010 this morning. This gives Russell some stability as he begins his second season at the helm. Said general manager Neal Huntington:

JR met or exceeded expectations in his first year as the Pirates manager. His leadership, knowledge, attention to detail, ability to see the big picture and passion for things being done the right way made him the ideal choice as our manager a year ago and made the decision to pick up his option for 2010 an easy decision. I look forward to working closely for him for years to come as we build a consistent championship caliber organization in Pittsburgh.

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