January 20, 2008
Every Given Sunday
Reconstruction in Slow Motion
A quick glance at the Pittsburgh Pirates' roster might make it seem as though Neal Huntington has been asleep at the wheel in nearly four months on the job as general manager. The Pirates have only seven players on their 40-man roster who were not with the organization last season. Five are waiver claims, one is a Rule 5 Draft pick and the other is much-traveled utility infielder Chris Gomez, signed to a one-year, $1 million contract as a free agent. However, while that seems like a minimal amount of reconstruction on a team that went 68-94 and had the worst record in the National League last season, it doesn't mean Huntington has been slacking.
"It may not look like we've made many changes on the surface, but we've been very busy trying to change the structure of the organization," Huntington said. "We may not have done much in the way of player moves, but I'm very confident that we've done a lot of work in an effort to put this franchise back on course toward becoming a winner again."
Huntington fired manager Jim Tracy and the coaching staff while also jettisoning player development director Brian Graham and scouting director Ed Creech. John Russell, manager of Philadelphia's Triple-A farm club, has been brought in as the new skipper, while Kyle Stark was hired from Cleveland, where he was the assistant player development director, to oversee the farm system; former Detroit scouting director Greg Smith is on board in the same capacity with the Pirates.
Nevertheless, the lack of player movement has been disappointing to a fan base that has suffered through 15 losing seasons since the Pirates won three straight NL East titles from 1990-92. However, Huntington and Russell firmly believe a roster overhaul is necessary for the Pirates to show improvement in 2008. "I think almost any analyst you would talk to would tell you the 2007 Pirates underachieved," Huntington said. "I'm not about to say we're going to win a championship or a certain number of games with the team we have. However, I do feel this team should be more competitive than last season if for no other reason than it would be hard to believe that so many players would underachieve for a second consecutive season."
The Pirates finished 12th in the NL in Equivalent Average last season, and 15th in both RA+ and defensive efficiency. Yet Russell feels the Pirates will be improved in all areas in 2008: "I think we have a solid team," Russell said. "If you look around the diamond, we're pretty much set at every position with a proven major league player. We have a number of good young starting pitchers who have shown they can provide innings in the major leagues. We have some questions like every other team, but I don't feel we have that many questions. I like what we have right now."
That leaves one burning question, though, with the start of spring training coming in less than a month: How can the Pirates win with a roster that lost so many games a year ago? "I think a lot of it is in the approach we'll be taking," Russell said. "We're stressing accountability. There is going to be accountability with the front office, accountability with the manager and the coaching staff, and accountability with the players. The players are going to understand that a consistent effort is going to be needed. We can't have a lot of three-game or four-game losing streaks. The mindset has to change."
Russell also believes the Pirates, a relatively young team, will be improved in the fact that many of their players have gained another year of experience. None of the Pirates' starting position players are older than second baseman Freddy Sanchez and shortstop Jack Wilson, who are 30. Outside of 33-year-old Matt Morris, the rest of the projected rotation is 26 or younger.
Huntington did not go into the winter expecting to make just one trade to this point, dealing set-up reliever Salomon Torres to Milwaukee for two minor-league relievers. However, the poor 2007 season left many of the Pirates' players without much value on the trade market. "Quite frankly, we would be selling low in just about any trade that we could possibly make, and we're not going to sell low," Huntington said. "We need to build depth in this organization and the only way you can build that depth is to trade players when their value is high."
That has caused Huntington to show uncommon discipline as a new GM, particularly in light of the fact he is taking over an organization that hasn't won in a generation. "I really believe one of my strengths and one of the strengths of our organization is that we try to take emotions out of decisions and try to make rational moves that will benefit the Pirates," Huntington said. "It isn't always easy. I want to improve our club and organization as soon as I can. We all want to make this organization better as soon as possible. Yet, you don't want to make moves that are potentially going to weaken the organization. You just can't do that. Unfortunately, there haven't been any trade scenarios that have been presented that really would make us better not only for 2008 but for 2009, 2010, and 2011."
The trade of third basemen in which St. Louis swapped Scott Rolen to Toronto for Troy Glaus is interesting on a number of levels. For openers, both wanted to be traded. Rolen had been feuding with Cardinals manager Tony La Russa for over a year, while Glaus hated playing on the Blue Jays' artificial surface in the Rogers Centre. Secondly, both seem to be in the decline phase of their careers because of injuries-Rolen has chronic shoulder problems, while Glaus suffered with plantar fasciitis all last season.
However, Rolen, Glaus and their new teams were all upbeat after the trade was consummated this past week. Rolen turned his introductory press conference into a bit of improvisational comedy, engaging in some playful sparring with Blue Jays GM Jay Ricciardi, who referred to Rolen as a 'dirt bag.' "Boston has some dirt bags and New York has some dirt bags. We have some, but we wanted more," Ricciardi told the Toronto Sun. To Ricciardi, there is no higher compliment than to call a gritty player a dirt bag.
In responding to questions about his shoulder, Rolen deadpanned, "I can't believe I passed my physical." He then went on to say he feels stronger than he has in the past three years and that an improved range of motion makes him free "to get back to being a dirt bag."
Rolen's playful nature certainly clashed with the image of a guy who couldn't get along with his manager. Rolen politely declined to talk about his past troubled with La Russa. "For me to rehash the past, well, there were some unfortunate things that went on that are insignificant to me sitting here in this uniform right now," he said. "There's plenty of time to cast stones but it's important for me to tell you I truly enjoyed my time in St. Louis. I don't feel like I have a problem playing for any manager. I sure don't want people to think I'm a difficult person to get along with."
Glaus is a bit taciturn but has never been considered difficult to get along with. However, he does have the steroid cloud hanging over him, especially after his being found among the players named in the Mitchell Report. Glaus only briefly addressed being included in its pages, commenting to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "I cooperated fully with MLB and their investigation. They came to the conclusion that there was no discipline needed. That's all I'm going to say about that. Look forward."
Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said he was aware of the public opinion about obtaining a player who had been linked to performance-enhancing drugs but had no reservations about trading for Glaus. "It's not only PR, but it's also moving forward and understanding that players make mistakes," Mozeliak said. "Ultimately, we felt comfortable making the recommendation to ownership for baseball reasons."
Perhaps it was Glaus' destiny to play in St. Louis. Though he grew up in Carlsbad, California, he remembered telling his mother when he was six years old that he wanted to be the Cardinals' third baseman. "It was just kind of an impromptu statement that I made to her," Glaus said. "Twenty-five years later, I've been given that opportunity."
On the subject of baseball and drugs, Milwaukee signed center fielder Mike Cameron to a one-year, $7 million contract as a free agent this week, although the center fielder will be suspended for the first 25 games of the season for violating Major League Baseball's amphetamines policy. However, the Brewers said they did an extensive background check on Cameron before deciding to sign him. "'A great guy' was the worst I could get out of anybody about him," manager Ned Yost told the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Thus, the Brewers will plug Cameron into center field, move Bill Hall from center to third base, and shift last season's NL Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun from third to left field. That should help the Brewers, who were 13th in the NL in defensive efficiency last season. "Improving our defense was paramount in my mind," Yost said. "Once your defense gets better, your pitching gets better."
However, Yost also noted, "It's very important to me, too, how a player is in the clubhouse. What type of makeup, what type of attitude, what type of person he is off the field as well as on the field. I knew Mike's character was on the upper end of the chart, which I was really excited about."
Cameron knows his reputation has suffered since his suspension was announced at the end of last season. "A lot of people kind of throw stones at you, in many different ways," Cameron said. "The toughest thing I have to deal with is I have to sit out 25 games. That will have more affect on me than any dollar (amount deducted from his pay) probably would. That was the last thing you want to happen when you've had a very clean and good reputation."
In Cameron's absence, Yost said he would mix and match players in center, and would not keep Hall there until Cameron's suspension ended.
Tampa Bay has decided to try something different by hiring Tim Bogar, a highly regarded manager from Cleveland's farm system, as a quality assurance coach. Bogar's responsibilities will include scheduling, organizing, instruction, and scouting. He will be in charge of reviewing the reports from the Rays' advance scouts, as well as watching Tampa Bay from the stands-he will not be in uniform during games. Essentially, Bogar's role, according to Rays manager Joe Maddon, is to "try to get ahead of our own mistakes.''
Bogar was originally going to be called the quality control coach. However, Maddon wanted something that sounded more proactive. Maddon also believes other clubs may come to copy the Rays on this idea. "I know this is a radical approach to baseball," Maddon told the St. Petersburg Times, "but so was the bench coach when that came along, so was the DH, so was color television at some point. With all the information that's available to us and all the different things that the coaches have to do on a daily basis, I want the coaches to be able to really be able to get involved with the players as much as possible."
Rumors and rumblings: Phillies assistant GM Ruben Amaro Jr. is taking on a growing role as team spokesman, leading many around the Phillies to believe he will be tabbed to replace GM Pat Gillick, who plans to retire at the end of the upcoming season. … The Mets are considering turning their attention to trying to acquire Bedard if they can't get Johan Santana from Minnesota. … The Cardinals have some interest in bringing outfielder Juan Gonzalez to camp as a non-roster invitee, although he hasn't played in the major leagues since notching exactly one plate appearance with Cleveland in 2005. … Cardinals outfielder Juan Encarnacion is likely to miss the entire 2008 season after suffering severe damage to his left eye when hit by a foul ball late last season. … Mark Kotsay, acquired from Oakland in a trade this past week, is strictly a one-year bridge in center field for Atlanta until top prospect Jordan Schafer is ready... Cubs insiders believe right-hander Jon Lieber, signed as a free agent this past week, will be part of a four-way competition for two open spots in the rotation with Ryan Dempster, Jason Marquis, and Sean Marshall. Carlos Zambrano, Ted Lilly, and Rich Hill already have jobs locked up. … Cincinnati has at least cursory interest in Oakland right-hander Joe Blanton, although the Reds have made it clear to other teams that they will not part with outfield prospect Jay Bruce.
Seattle's reluctance to part with right-handed pitching prospect Chris Tillman could be what is keeping the Mariners from getting Orioles lefty Erik Bedard in a trade. Outfielder Adam Jones almost certainly would be the centerpiece of a Mariners' offer, and other possibilities in the deal would be right-hander Brandon Morrow, left-handed reliever George Sherrill, and shortstop prospect Carlos Triunfel. ... Boston has interest in Pittsburgh's switch-hitting catcher/first baseman/outfielder Ryan Doumit, but the Pirates are reluctant to part with him. The Red Sox are also talking with free agent outfielder Brad Wilkerson, but are reportedly balking at his asking price of three years and $21 million. … Tampa Bay is leaning toward playing oft-injured Rocco Baldelli in right field instead of center in an attempt to keep him healthy. … The Rays' acquisition of third baseman Willy Aybar from Atlanta this past week means top prospect Evan Longoria is no longer a lock to be manning the hot corner on Opening Day. … Tampa Bay is talking to young right-hander James Shields about a contract that could run as long as six years. … Though Huston Street signed a one-year, $3.3 million contract to avoid arbitration, there is some thought that Oakland would consider dealing the closer after acquiring Joey Devine from Atlanta as part of the Kotsay trade. … The White Sox are on the verge of signing free agent reliever Octavio Dotel to a two-year contract. … Detroit manager Jim Leyland is hopeful that Brandon Inge, who lost his starting third base job with last month's acquisition of Miguel Cabrera from Florida, will be willing to take up catching again to give the Tigers some insurance behind the plate, especially because backup catcher Vance Wilson has been slow to recover from the reconstructive elbow surgery that caused him to miss last season. … While Cabrera signed for one year and $11.3 million to avoid an arbitration hearing, he is said to still be receptive to a long-term deal with the Tigers. … The Royals say they are basically done for the winter, but they might still land free agent starter Bartolo Colon if he proves willing to settle for a one-year contract.