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June 21, 2010

On the Beat

Monday Update

by John Perrotto

Pirates management insists it has a plan in place that will transform the downtrodden franchise from laughingstock to winner. Chairman Bob Nutting says they do and so does team president Frank Coonelly, general manager Neal Huntington, and manager John Russell. However, the plan certainly isn't paying dividends at the present. The Pirates are 25-44 and 13 games behind the Cardinals in the National League Central. Only the Orioles, with their 19-50 record, are keeping the Pirates from having the worst record in the major leagues.

Remember, too, that losing is not just a recent trend for the Pirates. Losing baseball has long been a lifestyle where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers meet to form the Ohio. The Pirates have had 17 consecutive losing seasons, a major North American professional sports record. However, with the way things have gone lately with the Pirates, it is easy to wonder if anyone in the organization knows what in the heck he is doing. And it goes just beyond the Pirates having lost 12 games in a row until notching back-to-back victories over the Indians on Saturday and Sunday.

Last Tuesday, general manager Neal Huntington was adamant that third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates' prized prospect, was not yet ready for a promotion from Triple-A Indianapolis. Huntington talked about baseball "being littered with failed prospects that were rushed to the major leagues" and insisted Alvarez would not be one of them. Yet, one night later, Alvarez was at PNC Park making his major-league debut against the White Sox.

On the same night Alvarez was making his debut in front of a crowd of just 15,281—not exactly the same kind of buzz Stephen Strasburg generated in Washington eight days earlier when he debuted against the Pirates—Ken Rosenthal and Jon Paul Morosi reported on FoxSports.com that manager John Russell was in danger of being fired. That was not shocking since the Pirates had lost 10 straight games at that point and Russell was supposedly in the final year of his contract.

The next afternoon, Coonelly gathered the beat reporters who cover the Pirates in his office and told them that both Russell and Huntington had received one-year extensions that kept them under contract through 2011. The kicker there was that the extensions had been granted last October.

Major-leagues teams announce contract extensions for their GM and managers as a matter of a course. In fact, when two veteran publicity men from other major-league clubs learned of the secret extensions, both were incredulous that the Pirates had been clandestine about the matter.

Coonelly gave a lame explanation that the Pirates did not disclose the extensions because it would have created a distraction. Instead, keeping things quiet created a distraction because Huntington and Russell spent spring training and the first 2 ½ months of the season answering questions about their future from the media.

A day after the secret extensions were revealed, the Pirates showed their opposition to the concept of the freedom of speech by firing one of their racing pierogies, who compete in a between-innings competition in dumpling-shaped costumes. Andrew Kurtz got the ax after he made a post on his Facebook post that was critical of the Huntington and Russell extensions.

Things haven't been much better on the field for the Pirates this season. They are last in the major leagues with an average of 3.25 runs scored per game and next-to-last with 5.62 runs allowed, ahead of only the Diamondbacks. The Pirates are also 28th in defensive efficiency with a .672 mark, giving them an excellent chance of winning a negative team triple crown in 2010.

Three players who were expected to important pieces for the Pirates have been abject failures. Second baseman Aki Iwamura (.220 TAv) was designated for assignment when Alvarez was called up and first baseman Jeff Clement (.199) finds himself at Indianapolis along with right-hander Charlie Morton, who posted -1.5 SNLVAR in 10 starts.

The Pirates are trying to put on a happy face after promoting Alvarez from Indianapolis along with second baseman Neil Walker, left fielder Jose Tabata, and right-handed starter Brad Lincoln in the last month.

"It's an exciting time to see all these guys come to the major leagues because it's what we've been working toward over the last two years," Russell said. "I know that our record isn't good, but I really believe we're not that far away from turning this thing around."

The miserly Nutting, the man who begrudgingly signs the checks, insists he is committed to the Pirates' plan. However, he makes it clear he is not happy with the way the 2010 season is unfolding.

Nutting called himself "frustrated" and "shocked" by the team's performance in an interview with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette but also expressed confidence, albeit tepid, in Huntington and Russell.

"I believe in the process, and I believe in the future of this team," Nutting said. "And they need to deliver on that optimism, but they also need to know they can do it without having to look over their shoulders. As long as they're in those positions, we need to move forward together. I'm frustrated but also shocked. Angry. Surprised at where we are. Some of the individual performances are not what we expected, as you've seen from some of the roster moves that have been made. But there's no way to adequately express the level of frustration verbally. It's an emotionally challenging and difficult time."

---

Phillies first-base coach Davey Lopes unwittingly set off a bit of a firestorm because of a comment he made about second baseman Chase Utley in a Prospectus Q&A with David Laurila that was posted last Friday. Lopes told Laurila that Utley "has been hampered by a little bit of a knee injury."

The remark was not all that surprising because Utley was hitting .257 at the time, the lowest his batting average had ever been that late into a season. Various scouts had also questioned if Utley was suffering from some kind of leg injury.

Utley denied he had any injury issues, though he also admitted that he never reveals his hurts to the media and has a different definition of injury than most people. If nothing else, the report seemed to wake Utley's bat, as he was 6-for-14 with a double, a triple, a home run, and seven RBI in the weekend series with the Twins.

"In my opinion, an injury is something that keeps you off the field," Utley said. "When you play 162 games plus, you're going to have aches and pain. That's part of this game, it's part of bring a baseball player, it's something you have to deal with. In my opinion there is no injury whatsoever."

Utley has been on the team's daily injury report that athletic trainer Scott Sheridan provides to manager Charlie Manuel. However, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. joked, almost everyone on the injury-plagued Phillies winds up on the list these days.

When asked how he felt, Utley said: "Depends on the day. I've iced my ankles, my knees, my back— there are plenty of things that bother you. As far as pain, some days it's good, some days it's not so good."

---

Cliff Lee was the biggest name to be moved before last season's non-waiver trading deadline as he was dealt to the Phillies from the Indians. Now with the Mariners, the left-hander is likely to be on the move again this year before the July 31 deadline as the Mariners are 28-41 and 13 games out in the American League West.

There has been plenty of speculation that the Phillies could trade for Lee again, but Amaro is adamant that he will not again raid his farm system, which has been thinned by blockbuster deals in recent years. However, there figure to be plenty of others suitors for Lee, with the Red Sox, Tigers, Dodgers, Twins, and Mets likely to be among them.

Mariners GM Jack Zduriencik says the volume of calls on Lee has been increasing in recent days. Zduriencik, though, isn't inclined to trade Lee until at least the end of this month as he wants to see if his team can climb back into the race.

Lee, for his part, is taking it all in stride, saying, "I have no control over it, so there's no point worrying about it. I've been traded before."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: If the Twins decide that the price is too high on Lee, their next starting pitching trade target is almost certain to be Cubs left-hander Ted Lilly. … The Red Sox have some interest in Cubs outfielder Kosuke Fukudome but only if Chicago eats a large portion of the $21 million left on his contract that runs through the end of next season. … If Carlos Guillen struggles in making the transition to second base, the Tigers' backup plan is to trade for Mariners third baseman Jose Lopez (who was shifted from second base in spring training) or the Diamondbacks' Kelly Johnson. … The Rangers figure to have the best chance of landing Astros right-hander Roy Oswalt in a trade, but only if Major League Baseball approves the sale of the club from Tom Hicks to a group led by Nolan Ryan and Chuck Greenberg before the July 31 non-waiver trading deadline. … The White Sox' fallback plan at third base is to trade for the Red Sox' Mike Lowell if rookie Dayan Viciedo shows he is not ready for the job. The Rangers, Angels, Braves, and Rockies are also believed to have some level of interest in Lowell.

---

Three series to watch:

Padres (40-29) at Rays (42-27), Tuesday-Thursday June 22-24
Mat Latos vs. Wade Davis, 7:10 p.m.; Kevin Correia vs. James Shields, 7:10 p.m.; Wade LeBlanc vs. Matt Garza, 12:10 p.m.

Tigers (38-30) at Mets (39-30), Tuesday-Thursday June 22-24
Justin Verlander vs. Jonathon Niese, 7:10 p.m.; Jeremy Bonderman vs. R.A. Dickey, 7:10 p.m.; Armando Galarraga vs. Hisanori Takahashi, 7:10 p.m.

Red Sox (42-28) at Rockies (36-33), Tuesday-Thursday June 22-24
Jon Lester vs. Jhoulys Chacin, 8:40 p.m.; John Lackey vs. Ubaldo Jimenez, 8:40 p.m.; Daisuke Matsuzaka vs. Jason Hammel, 8:40 p.m.

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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