Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Team the Changed Baseball - 1971 Pirates

I just finished reading The Team that Changed Baseball by Bruce Markusen. It is about the 1971 Pirates and argues that they finished the job of integration started by Jackie Robinson. The book is a nice review of the World Championship run, and taught me quite a few things that I did not know.

However, the book suffers a little from lack of constant focus on his theme. The beginning of the book is great as it shows the unity of the team and its racial mix of blacks, latinos, and whites. It shows how Bill Mazaroski helped teach defense to Dave Cash, which actually costs Maz his job at second base. But as the description of the season wears on Markusen loses sight of trying to prove that the 71 Pirates changed baseball. He does a nice job of discussing the season, and does occassionally mention the outbursts of Clemente or Doc Ellis, and how everyone got along anyway, but if you are reading the book to find out how this team changed baseball you are over two thirds of the way through before Markusen really proves his case. It is in the chapter on September where you see that on September 1, 1971 the Pirates fielded the first all minority line-up in MLB history. All 9 positions were a minority. Here is where the heart of his thesis lies and he discusses how each player reacted and even tries to figure you if the coach, Danny Murtaugh, did it on purpose or not, and whether or not that improves the theory of the book. He talks of the quota system in baseball, and the sterotyping of Latinos as good defensive players and blacks as big hitters being shattered by the Pirates. It is an interesting case and one that probably ought to be discussed more when integration is discussed in baseball.

The book is still good if you are reading to learn more about the Pirates run to the Pennant and World title. One of my favorite little stories in the book is about catcher Manny Sanguillen and pitcher of crucial Game 5 Nellie Briles. Game 5 was the swing game as the series was tied 2-2. Briles was a surprise starter, and had pitched 6 shut out innings when he had a disagreement with Sanguillen. Sanguillen wanted to throw mostly sliders and change ups in the inning to keep Baltimore off balance. Briles wanted to throw fast balls and shorten the game since the Pirates had a 4 run lead. Sanguillen took offense, since Sanguillen called the game to that point and thought they were doing well. He went back to home plate and refused to put down any signs. The two met on the mound again and Sanguillen said, “I no need signs to catch your junk.” And continued to refuse to put down signs. They played the whole inning without the catcher knowing what was coming. The shut out was intact and Sanguillen was able to catch all of Briles’s “junk”. What a remarkable athlete Sanguillen really was.

I recommend the book, but read it for the drama of the 1971 year and series. I think the argument could be made that the 71 Pirates changed baseball, but this book only makes that argument a couple of times and if you are looking for a book to make that argument then this is not the book for you.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Pirate Bullpen Preview

The Pirates Bullpen is the thing to watch as Spring Training starts and continues. There is a lot up in the air. It was a major weak spot, ranking 15th in the National League last year. However that 15th was bolstered by the good work of people like John Grabow who got traded and Jesse Chavez, who got tired by the end of the year and was traded in the off season. So the pen at the end of last year was an absolute wreck. In fact it did not even have a left handed reliever. All that has changed as the Pirates have added more talent in the bullpen than any spot on the roster. Let’s take a look.

The spots that are closed for sure are as follows:
Closer: Octavio Dotel will be the closer. He has not been a closer for a few years, but has experience doing it. It has been an effective, high strike out late inning guy for the last few years. Dotel is at least as effective as a good Capps, who departed in the off season. Capps had a really bad year last year, so Dotel is an upgrade over last year for sure.

Late Inning/Set Up: The 8th and 7th inning will be filled by three guys. Evan Meek, who is probably the closer of the future for the Pirates if he does well this year (with Daniel Moskos as another option). Meek needs the late inning experience, but Meek did well in his role last year before an injury struck. This time he will not be alone and will not have much pressure. A good transition year for Meek.
Joel Hanrahan is another option for the late innings, and he is the insurance as the closer if Dotel were to implode. Hanrahan has been a closer with the Nationals, and did some late inning work for the Pirates last year. In fact, he was excellent for the Pirates. His ERA for the year was over 4. But after joining the Pirates it was under 2. If he can keep that up, or split the difference, he will be a valuable part of the pen.
The other option is 38 year old Brendan Donnelly. Donnelly was with the Marlins last year and has shown he can throw well.

Left Hander: Javier Lopez is the left hander who was added to the pen. He brings experience and the ability to get lefties out. This was sorely missing once Grabow departed last year.

The last two sports are up for grabs. The competition for those spots ought to be entertaining.

Favored: DJ Carrasco pitched in the White Sox bullpen and has a shot at making the Pirates although he does not have a major league contract. He has always been a good Triple A guy, but he does need to show he can be a major league guy.

Long Relief? That is a question the Pirates will have to decide. Will they put a guy in the pen that can throw long innings and spot start if they need it. Right now the long guy on the 40 man roster is Chris Jakubauskas. Jakubauskas had an ERA of almost 5.50 last year mostly in relief, but did show he can make a spot start. He was 6-7 for the Mariners and struck out 47 guys. That is not overly impressive. Which leaves the door open for people not on the 40 man roster like Jeff Karstens, who had a decent year from the pen last year, and won a couple of spot starts. Karstens is a known quantity. The other option is the loser of the contest for the fifth spot on the starting rotation. Kevin Hart and Daniel McCutchen both make better starters and have the ability to be sent to Triple A, which will be crowded in the starting rotation. However, putting them in the pen will be a set back to future starting hopes.

So that could round out the bullpen, but the Pirates could decide to forego a true Long Reliever, or Carrasco might not earn his spot. These are the other names to look out for.

The Long Shots:
Justin Thomas is a true lefty, which might help his cause. Yet, his major league career was not impressive. He will have to show a lot to make this team.

Jack Taschner is a lefty with experience. He is mostly a left handed specialist, which would seem to be taken right now by Lopez. Thus, I put him as a long shot. He is also 31.

Vinnie Chulk is a right hand pitcher who has a decent career ERA for a bullpen guy and can strike people out. Yet again he is already 31 and has washed out now of several places. He also has twice as many losses as wins. Not a great sign.

Wilfredo Ledezma is best known for eating his hat, literally. However, he is still in his late twenties. His failure at the major league level is not a good sign. He is a long shot.

Decent Chance:
Brian Bass has some experience. He has youth. And he has some success. A 9-7 record in 44 games with the Twins including 99 strikeouts. Better yet, he has starting pitcher experience and major league long relief experience. He is a righty with some growing yet to do making him an intriguing guy to watch during spring training. If anyone was going to displace someone listed above, my money is on Bass.

Brian Burres is a lefty handed pitcher with a good change up, but a fastball that might could use a little more zip. He has been a started more often than a reliever, and perhaps a transition into the pen is what his career needs. He has potential to make this ball club and could serve as long relief. Adding a second left hand pitcher to this team could also be a plus.

Stephen Jackson pitched well last year for the Pirates. He was removed from the 40 man roster, and that is a bad sign. However, he is still with the Pirates and will be a real option. If he comes in and shows consistency, he may very well pick up the pieces if Carrasco falters.

In the end this is a really good group for the Pirates. They have other less attractive options as well like Virgil Vasquez and Anthony Claggett, but those guys are not really in the mix. The Pirates are loaded with potential and some experience in the bullpen now. They have more strike out pitchers than last year, and they now have a deep group to choose from in Triple A when the inevitable injury hits. I like Bass and Burres more than Jakubauskas, but the Pirates have Jakubauskas on the 40 man right now. Hopefully that will change after Spring Training. Having lefties in the bullpen will be good and having lefties at Triple A like Thomas (in all probability) is great insurance. The Pirates ought to have a good year with the pen.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Pitching Rotation Preview

The Pirate rotation is basically set with open competition for the 5th spot. Paul Malhom, Zack Duke, and Ross Ohlendorf are their top three with Charlie Morton locked into the fourth spot. The fifth spot in the rotation is where the competition is. It is basically down to two guys: Kevin Hart and Daniel McCutchen. Spring Training will be the deciding place for this battle as neither really grabbed a lead in last months of the regular season. Hart was awful with the Pirates and McCutchen was not overly impressive although he did go 6 innings in all but one of his starts and he won his last one. How much that experience aids McCutchen’s confidence and off season development will probably be the deciding factor. Hart is eligible to be sent to the minors, so I expect that McCutchen will win the job and Hart will be in the minors. Hart could get the long reliever spot, but I think if he fails to make the team, they will probably want him to work on whatever his problem is as a starter in the minors. In Hart’s defense, he did make a delivery change when he came to the Pirates. If he worked all the kinks in the motion out over the summer, then he may have better stuff and win that fifth spot.

The interesting thing about the rotation is what it will look like by the end of the season. Brad Lincoln is close to being ready. Most expect he will be in the rotation by the end of the year. If he does well in AAA, like he did last year, then there is no reason to think that they will make Lincoln wait until the September call ups to join the staff. Lincoln could replace anyone that was floundering in the rotation. Or, more interestingly, he could be the reason to move a Zack Duke in a trade. Duke as a lefty would probably bring a good return and it will help the Pirates avoid losing him to free agency. With Lincoln in reserve, a deal of a starting pitcher seems likely if the Pirates are not in the thick of things at the deadline.

My take on this is that it is a pitching rotation with a hole. A hole that I hope Lincoln can fill. That I hole, I believe, is Charlie Morton. I know that Morton is every Sabermatetican’s dream. He has a high strike out and ground ball rate, but in the end, he loses ball games. He does not seem to be able to get the big out in the big inning. And he will throw in a 10 run 2 inning performance every now and then. If Morton is not better this year, then I think one can legitimately question his mental toughness. This is probably what the Braves thought was the problem and why they traded him in the first place. The Pirates are high on him, and his numbers make you think that he has potential. His numbers except the all important numbers of wins and losses. There he makes you think that there is little be excited about.

Also, Paul Malhom has to pitch better if the Pirates hope to be in the pennant race. Ohlendorf looks good, and he could be ace material, but Malhom is the current stopper. He has the stuff to duel with the best in the league. He did not have the monumental collapse that the previous aces have had dating back to Duke in 06, Snell in 07, and Gorzellany in 08. Still a .500 record will not cut it. The Pirates need him to pick up the dominance a bit, and lead this team from the front. Ohlendorf ought to be able to reel in double digit wins, and if he is not being counted on too much, then he has the potential to really have a great year. Duke has shown he can get double digit wins, and with a better offense, his total will increase. The back end is weak and young, but with Lincoln waiting and the loser of the competition for the 5th spot also in the hole, they have plenty of depth to try and find a combo that will not let down the front end of the rotation. The Pirates look better than they have in a while with regards to the pitching rotation, but it is still young. Consistency must be preached and practiced for the Pirates to walk away with hardware at the end of the season.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Preview Position Players

With Spring Training just around the corner it might be helpful for us to look at the competition for the Pirates team. However there is not a lot of competition to look at. I will break this into multiple posts. Position players, Starting Pitching, and Bullpen. However all of the real competition is for that last one: the bullpen.

The Position Starters are basically set with the outfield being the crown jewel. Milledge, McCutchen, and Jones provide a very dangerous outfield combination. The real question mark is whether or not Garrett Jones can duplicate his success over the course of the whole season. If so the Pirates can expect 30+ homeruns from him. He needs to improve with people on base, but that should not be so hard if people like Ryan Doumit stay healthy to take some of the pressure off. Milledge has a history of being up and down, but all signs are positive so far.

The infield is improved from the end of last year and might even be improved from the beginning of last year. Iwamura at second is the key addition. Expect him to hit second and with McCutchen in front of him, he ought to have plenty of RBI chances. Jeff Clement appears to be given the firstbase job, and Ronny Cedano will have the short stop position. Andy LaRoche, with Alvarez on the horizon, will be under some serious pressure to perform at third, but will start the season there. How well LaRoche hits is a key to the team’s overall success. They need him to improve his .250 average and if he could get a little more power the team would benefit greatly. Cedano is going to be the hole on the team, but it seems reasonable that he will hit better than he did last year, which was a career low for him. Still Cedano is the weak link.

Catcher of course will go to Ryan Doumit. Doumit is an injury prone guy. Last year he was supposed to be the guy who was the Carrier, the one who got the extra base hit, had the decent average, and could deposit the ball in the seats. His hurt hand ended that and the Pirate hopes. Not so much is riding on him this year, but he is still an important cog in the Pirate machine. His power should be back with a completely healthy hand. That is something Pirates sorely lack without him. He needs to provide the pop so that Jones is not burdened with the sole responsibility. He must stay healthy. If he does the RBI opportunities will be there for him.

The Bench is set as well. Jason Jarmillo is the back up catcher despite protestations that he will have to earn it. Bobby Crosby is the back up short stop, and Ramon Vasquez is the utility infielder. Ryan Church is the fourth outfielder. This bench is already better than last years. Jarmillo is improved after a year of playing. Crosby is better than Luis Cruz, and Church is about a 30 point improvement over Brandon Moss in average, and probably more. Thus, the pinch hitting should go up for the Pirates, and Vasquez no longer has to play short stop where his range is a problem. All this leds to the fifth and final spot on the bench. The Pirates contend it is an open spot and that Brandon Moss and Dwelven Young both have a chance to compete for it along with John Raynor and maybe even Steven Pierce. However, Moss, Young, and Pierce all played last year and the Pirates were less than pleased. Plus, the Pirates will lose money and Raynor if they do not keep Raynor on the roster for the whole year. Raynor has his place on the team unless he self-destructs. Young would be the only other person who has even a remote chance because he hit over .300 as a pinch hitter. Raynor brings a perfect pinch runner to a rather slow bench. He also can fill in at center to rest McCutchen, which will not happen much. A perfect fit for a Rule 5 guy.

My opinion of this team is that it is good. The best the Pirates have put on the field in a while. However, it is still founded on some question marks such as Garrett Jones. I loved him this past year, but less than half a season may not be a good indication of what he will do this year. Ryan Doumit’s health is always a question. And Andy LaRoche must step up. Short Stop is still a hole no matter who you put there. But the biggest question mark of all is Jeff Clement. I do not think he is ready for the big time, especially as a first baseman. But the Pirates really have no choice. Pierce has shown he will be ineffectual. I would be happier with Jones at first and Tabata making the opening day roster, but that is not going to happen.

Still the Pirates have a good team. The real interesting thing to watch during the season is how they will fit all of their new young talent into this team as they are ready to come up. Trades? It will be an interesting season for the Pirates.