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February 7, 2010

On the Beat

Righting The Ship

by John Perrotto

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Manager John Russell was chatting with a fan during the Pirates' annual winter promotional caravan recently when he was asked a rather simple question that still gave him reason to pause.

"He asked me if there was ever going to be any light at the end of the tunnel," Russell said. "After everything we've been through in the last year, I hadn't really looked at it in those terms, but my answer was yes. We're through that tunnel now and we can see daylight, metaphorically speaking."

At this point, it would be easy to add the obligatory wisecrack that the light is actually an oncoming train, but we don't use stupid old jokes in On The Beat. Well, at least not very often.

It is easy to poke fun at the Pirates when they talk about being on the right path. Everyone has heard that story so many times during their current and unprecedented run of 17 consecutive losing seasons. The Pirates seems to be in a perpetually rebuilding mode, bringing in young players and allowing them to mature to the point they can be traded for prospects to start the cycle over.

The Pirates, though, insist things are different this time. They are adamant that this stab at rebuilding is going to take hold and restore credibility to the franchise.

"I know people are skeptical, and they have every right to be until we show results on the field," general manager Neal Huntington said. "We truly believe in what we're doing. We believe we have a lot of good young players on our major-league roster and more coming through our minor-league system that are going to lay the groundwork of a championship organization."

PECOTA isn't so bullish on the Pirates' short-term future, as it projects them to finish 70-92 this year, which would be the worst record in the major leagues, but it would be an improvement over their 62-99 mark in 2009. The Pirates will also have the lowest payroll in the game at estimated $35 million, which is part the penuriousness of owner Bob Nutting, who believes in making a profit first and winning second, and the fact that the Pirates have a young roster devoid of many players with the necessary major-league service time to make much over the minimum $400,000 salary.

The Pirates won't only be young this season, but they will also have an almost completely different look than the team that took the field on Opening Day last season, as Huntington made a series of seven trades last June and July that completely reshaped the roster. Catcher Ryan Doumit and third baseman Andy LaRoche will be the only regulars back from last year's opener, while left-handers Zach Duke and Paul Maholm will return to the starting rotation along with Ross Ohlendorf.

The Pirates will have six new regulars, likely to be first baseman Jeff Clement, second baseman Akinori Iwamura, shortstop Ronny Cedeno, left fielder Lastings Milledge, center fielder Andrew McCutchen, and right fielder Garrett Jones. Charlie Morton and either Kevin Hart or Daniel McCutchen will be the newbies in the rotation, and Octavio Dotel will be the new closer.

The Pirates fell apart after the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline last season, going 19-41, and they needed a final-week rainout to keep them from possibly losing 100 games.

"The hard part was that so many guys were new and we were all trying to get to know each other, and a lot of us were still trying to establish that we belonged in the major leagues," Milledge said. "It wasn't like we really felt like a team until the last couple of weeks of the season."

Russell believes spending a little over six weeks on the Gulf Coast of Florida in Bradenton will do more than just help everyone's tans, saying, "Spring training is really when teams come together. Guys are together more. They spend more time with each other. It's going to make a big difference to have this group together from Day One instead of throwing a bunch of guys from different organizations together in the middle of the season."

The Pirates have also acquired a number of veterans this offseason, trading with the Rays for Iwamura, and signing Dotel, set-up reliever Brendan Donnelly, left-handed reliever Javier Lopez, infielder Bobby Crosby, and outfielder Ryan Church as free agents. While some may see it as a sign the Pirates are getting off course from the youth movement after last season's dismal finish, Huntington says the vets have been brought in to enhance the growth process of the young players.

"We've tried to have some semblance of balance on the roster," Huntington said. "Dotel and Donnelly will help our relievers mature. Bobby Crosby and Ryan Church are not old players by any stretch, but they've been around competitive environments, in maybe some environments similar to this. Hopefully, their experience as well as their on-field results will help us. We've certainly not abandoned the youth movement by any stretch of the imagination, but it is important to complement that youth with experience to help those players learn. Coach-to-player education is fantastic, but player-to-player sharing is also an outstanding way to help them."

Andrew McCutchen, though, is looking for the veteran players to do more than provide guidance. He thinks they can make the Pirates a competitive team, stating, "People won't know how good we are going to be until they watch us. I'm not a guy who makes predictions. I don't know what our record is going to be. What I do know is that we're going to have a much better team because Neal Huntington went out and got a lot of good players."

---

It seems odd to put Twins and high rollers in the same sentence, but that is what they have become, as the signing of second baseman Orlando Hudson to a one-year, $5-million contract as a free agent is likely to make the Opening Day payroll $96 million. That is a little more $30 million more than where it stood on Opening Day last season.

"We've certainly reached the upper extremes of where we can be," Twins GM Bill Smith said.

The Twins have reached those new extremes because of Target Field. The open-air 40,000-seat stadium will open in April and provide the franchise with unprecedented revenue.

"Ownership has always been pretty well committed to spend a significant percentage of revenues on payroll, and that hasn't changed," Smith said. "Fortunately, with the move from the Metrodome to Target Field, we have some additional revenues. Believe me, we've tapped into that revenue stream."

The Twins certainly have, as Hudson's signing caps an uncharacteristically busy winter in which they also traded for Brewers shortstop J.J. Hardy, re-signed right-hander Carl Pavano, and signed designated hitter Jim Thome as a free agent.

"I'm excited to take this team to Fort Myers, I can tell you that," Smith said.

---

It is a rare time when a major-league GM gets called out by an NFL owner, but that is what happened to the Yankees' Brian Cashman this week. In explaining why it is vital for the NFL to continue to have a salary cap, Baltimore Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti took a playful shot at the guy who put together the team that won the 2009 World Series.

"If I'm a Yankees fan, I'm upset we're not winning 130 games with the roster that they have and the money that they pay out," Bisciotti said. "I think it's a disgrace they only beat the average team by 10 games in the standings with three times the money. I'd fire that GM. You don't need a GM. All you have to do is buy the last Cy Young Award winner every year."

Bisciotti was then asked by the Baltimore Sun's Peter Schmuck if Major League Baseball should impose a salary cap, something the owners have wanted to do for years.

"I think the genie's out of the bottle with baseball," Bisciotti said. "There's just no way of solving it."

Yankees owner Hal Steinbrenner doesn't plan on heeding Bisciotti's advice, as Cashman's job is safe. However, there is already speculation in New York about the future of Yankees manager Joe Girardi, whose contract expires at the end of the year. The Yankees have a policy of not negotiating contracts until the current one expires.

"Honestly, I don't let myself worry about the next contract. I'm more focused on getting my team ready for Opening Day," Girardi told the Bergen Record's Bob Klapisch. "I know what's at stake. I know about the expectations. But that's never changed; it's been this way ever since I took this job."

---

Artificial turf is nearly a thing of the past in the major leagues, as the Twins are set to become the latest team to move to a natural grass surface. That will leave Tropicana Field and the Rogers Centre as the last remaining non-grass venues.

The Rays have no choice at Tropicana Field, as they are now the last team playing completely indoors in a dome. While the Rogers Centre has a retractable roof, the Blue Jays continue to play on turf because of the impracticality of growing lush grass in time for Opening Day in the cold climate of Toronto.

However, Rogers Centre will have a new playing surface in 2010, as the Blue Jays have decided to get rid of FieldTurf and replace it with AstroTurf, a word that had seemed to exit baseball lexicon forever. Blue Jays infielders will be happy with that news after they complained last season of many bad hops caused by loose seams and dead spots in the turf.

"I think every team has a home-field advantage because you get acclimated to that surface," Blue Jays infield coach Brian Butterfield told the National Post's John Lott. "But I don't think we had a home-field advantage because everything changed after they pulled it up and laid it back down. So hopefully this will give us a little more consistency."

The Blue Jays actually fielded better at home in 2009, with a .698 Defensive Efficiency at home compared to .666 on the road.

Manager Cito Gaston, Butterfield, and hitting coach Gene Tenace had a chance to inspect the new surface late last season during a road trip to Tampa Bay as AstroTurf was installed on a half-diamond used for infield drills at the Blue Jays' spring training facility in Dunedin, Fla.

"Gene hit me ground balls on the turf, just trying to get a feel for it," Butterfield said. "It was good. It was brand new, so it was a little stiff, but there weren't any noticeable seams. We were encouraged by it."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Diamondbacks' desire to sign Mark Reynolds to a multi-year contract extension, probably somewhere in the range of $15 million for three years, not only makes sense from a cost-certainty standpoint for the club, but it's also a nice gesture after the third baseman missed being eligible for salary arbitration this winter by two days of service time. The Padres, contrary to most reports, may at least attempt to sign first baseman Adrian Gonzalez to a long-term contract extension if for no other reason than to show a skeptical Major League Baseball Players Association that they are spending their revenue-sharing money on trying to improve the club rather than increasing profits. Free-agent left-hander Jarrod Washburn, who overplayed his hand when he turned down a $5-million offer from the Twins last month, is now seriously considering retirement.

Free-agent pitcher Todd Wellemeyer is considering minor-league offers from the Rockies, Mets, and Giants. Tigers pitching coach Rick Knapp does not think ace Justin Verlander will become content after signing a five-year, $80-million contract this past week: "He's such a dang competitor that my only fear is that he's going to try to compete with his contract now, and that usually never turns out very good." First-year Astros manager Brad Mills isn't buying into the commonly-held belief that his team won't contend this season, saying, "You go around the ball diamond and look at the guys on the field, you look at our starting rotation and the back end of the bullpen, and there's a lot to be excited about when you think of the possibilities with this club."

John Perrotto is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see John's other articles. You can contact John by clicking here

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