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August 6, 2008

On the Beat

The New Crew

by John Perrotto

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Seemingly every season over the past decade and a half, the Pirates wake up on August 1 with a brand new roster. That may be a bit of an overstatement, but there is no denying that the Pirates' roster has undergone in-season overhauls more often than not since their current string of 15 straight losing seasons began in 1993. That has again been the case this season in Neal Huntington's first full year as the Pirates' general manager.

The Pirates have nine players on their major league roster who were not there on June 26: third baseman Andy LaRoche, left fielder Brandon Moss, right fielder Steve Pearce, right-handed starter Jeff Karstens, and right-handed relievers Denny Bautista, T.J. Beam, Jason Davis, Craig Hansen, and Romulo Sanchez. Karstens was one of four minor leaguers acquired from the Yankees in a July 26 trade for right fielder Xavier Nady and left-handed reliever Damaso Marte. Hansen and Moss came from the Red Sox and LaRoche came from the Dodgers on July 31 in the three-team trade that saw Boston ship left fielder Manny Ramirez to Los Angeles and Pittsburgh send left fielder Jason Bay to the Red Sox. Bautista was acquired in a June 26 trade from the Tigers for a minor leaguer. Beam, Davis, Sanchez, and Pearce were all brought up from Triple-A Indianapolis.

"You always hate to give up players the caliber of Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, and Damaso Marte because they are good players, good guys in the clubhouse, great competitors, and everything we want in current and future Pirates," Huntington said. "At the same time, it has become very clear that we need to add depth to this organization. We need to add young players with upside who can help us for the future. Quite frankly, we lack talent in the minor leagues. That has been evident by the times we have had to dip down and call players up when we've had the need either through injury or poor performance. The kind of help you need for a major league roster just has not been there, and it has showed in our performance and our record."

When he was hired last September to replace Dave Littlefield, Huntington realized that a major rebuilding was in order. Publicly, the Pirates try not use the word "rebuilding," since their fans have been subject to hearing it so many times over the past 15 years. Huntington refused to rush into any trades last winter because he felt he was not being offered fair value in return. This season, however, the early-season performances of Bay, Nady, and Marte improved their trade value, and with a number of contenders seeking both right-handed-hitting outfielders and left-handed relievers, Huntington struck as the July 31 non-waiver deadline approached. "We happened to get into a situation where our assets were very valued, and we tried to take advantage of that situation to strengthen our organization," Huntington said.

While Littlefield spent six years insisting that he was building an organization around pitching, the Pirates have been seriously lacking in that area this season. They're giving up 5.5 runs per game, which ranks 29th in the majors, and offseting a surprising performance by an offense that is eighth in the majors with 4.9 runs per game. The Pirates' lack of pitching depth has been apparent every time they've called up a starting pitcher from the minor leagues, as right-handers Jimmy Barthmaier, Yoslan Herrera, Ty Taubenheim, and John Van Benschoten have combined to go 2-5 with a 10.10 ERA in 12 starts this season. The low point came in late June when the Pirates needed a long reliever for two days. Their best option was to call up right-hander Luis Munoz from Double-A Altoona, where he was 1-3 with a 7.34 ERA in seven starts after going 3-3 with a 5.45 ERA in 13 games (12 starts) with Indianapolis.

That was the kind of situation that motivated the trade of Nady and Marte to the Yankees for three members of their starting rotation at Triple-A-Karstens and fellow right-handers Daniel McCutchen and Ross Ohlendorf-along with outfield prospect Jose Tabata.

Huntington then wanted to add to his inventory of young hitters with the Bay trade, which is why he acquired LaRoche and Moss, both 24 and not eligible for free agency until after the 2014 season. He also acquired two more pitchers in Hansen and right-hander Bryan Morris, who was starting for the Dodgers' Low-A farm club. While the 19-year-old Tabata and 21-year-old Morris won't help in the major leagues for a few years, they are already among the top five prospects in the Pirates' farm system. "I would say they have as much or more upside than anyone we have in our organization," Huntington said.

Although the Pirates, at 51-62, seem destined for a 16th-consecutive losing season (which would tie them with the 1933-48 Philadelphia Phillies for the all-time record), they actually seem to have a bright future ahead for the first time in a long time. "We've been able to take three very good players and turned them into eight young players, who all have a chance to be very good major league players and be with us for at least six years before becoming free agents," Huntington said. "In our situation, we needed both quality and quantity when it comes to young players with upside. We feel we've done that with the trades. We've taken a step in the right direction in adding to our talent base, but we still have a long way to go. We need to continue to draft better amateur players in this country, sign better amateur free agents on the international free-agent market, and make good trades and free-agent signings and waiver pickups at the major league level."

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The Tigers were the trendy pick to win the American League Central, and possibly the World Series, after acquiring Miguel Cabrera and left-hander Dontrelle Willis from the Marlins in a big trade at the Winter Meetings trade. While Cabrera is coming off a July in which he was the AL Player of the Month, Willis is at High-A Lakeland trying to retool his complex pitching mechanics, and the Tigers' pennant hopes seem to be slipping away with each passing day. They're 55-57 and in third place in the AL Central, 7 games behind the division-leading White Sox.

While manager Jim Leyland has tried to stay calm throughout the disappointing season, he reached his boiling point last weekend and threatened a major shakeup of his underachieving club. "From the start of the season to this point has been more than disappointing. I've been shocked by our performance," Leyland said. "We've got too many guys not producing, and I'm not talking about one or two guys. We've had some performances that have been terrible. The last weeks, we have situations where we should have dominated a game and didn't come close. You've got to step it up if you want to be in the hunt. If not, go home and come back next spring training. I'll bring up some kids to play. If you don't want to grind it out, then start your vacation early. We should be embarrassed, and I'm not sure enough people are."

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The Indians, at 49-63 and in last place, have been another AL Central disappointment after winning the division last season. Manager Eric Wedge is already looking ahead to 2009, and has closer as the top of his off-season shopping list. Joe Borowski led the AL with 45 saves last season, but was released last month after posting a -1.705 WXRL in 16 2/3 innings. The Indians have struggled to find any reliable relievers this season; left-hander Rafael Perez is the only one to have pitched above replacement level with a 1.615 WXRL. "If we don't feel like we can find someone [already on the roster] in the next couple of months, and that would be tough to do, we need to go out and get somebody, though I know that's easier said than done."

Perez certainly has the stuff to be considered a closer, but Wedge doesn't seem to be too keen on moving the 25-year-old into that role. "He's been very valuable where he is," Wedge said. "There's a lot of value in someone being able to get to the ninth inning, and closers can come from places you never see coming. The fact is, you never know if someone can close until he actually does it. The bullpen starts with the closer. The team exudes so much more confidence when they know that guy is there."

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Cardinals manager Tony La Russa is a big believer in mixing and matching lineups as a way to keep his starters fresh and his reserves from getting rusty. Suddenly locked in an unexpected pennant race, however, La Russa is changing his philosophy as the season reaches the homestretch. The Cardinals are in third place in the National League Central with a 63-52 record, 5 games behind the first-place Cubs, and trailing the Brewers by only a half-game in the wild-card race.

"The guys that play the best play the most," La Russa told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "You still pay attention to fatigue, to matchups, but in the middle of August, that's when you turn." La Russa has already shifted into that mode in the last week, reinstalling Jason Isringhausen as the closer and moving Ryan Franklin back into a set-up role, while settling on left fielder Ryan Ludwick as the regular cleanup hitter behind first baseman Albert Pujols. The Cardinals also have four days off between August 18-28, which is right around the time right-hander Adam Wainwright is expected to come off of the disabled list and rejoin the rotation. La Russa is considering going to a four-man rotation for a few weeks during that time in order to maximize the use of his best starting pitchers.

Isringhausen is key for the Cardinals though, as he has moved back into the closer's role despite having a -2.406 WXRL in 38 1/3 innings this season, while Franklin had a 2.483 mark in 54 innings. La Russa is also sticking to his "guys that play the best play the most" philosophy when it comes to his reinstated closer. "Izzy's an important guy to our club, one of our leaders, one of the contributors who add something to our success," La Russa said. "But for him it's just like it is for Ludwick, [Joe] Mather, and others, it's always what you do next. What are you going to do for us tonight? I don't get too carried away with what we've done. It's always what's next."

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AL Rumors and Rumblings: The Orioles are expected to make a big push to sign Angels first baseman Mark Teixeira as a free agent in the offseason, as he grew up in the Baltimore suburbs. The Rangers will look to trade catcher Gerald Laird for some much-needed pitching over the winter, as they have plenty of catching depth with Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Taylor Teagarden, and Max Ramirez in the organization. Eric Chavez is scheduled for another shoulder surgery, and the Athletics are so concerned about his future that acquiring a third baseman is one of their top off-season priorities. The Indians are close to calling up right-hander Anthony Reyes from Triple-A Buffalo to join their rotation, after acquiring him from the Cardinals in a trade last month.

NL Rumors and Rumblings: The Mets seem to be the fron runners to sign Freddy Garcia as a free agent after the right-hander, who has missed the entire season while recovering from shoulder surgery, threw in front of scouts Tuesday in Miami. Though the Cubs designated left-handed reliever Scott Eyre for assignment, they are still hoping to work out a trade, and the Red Sox, Rays, Phillies, and Yankees are all believed to have at least some interest. The Padres are willing to trade right-handed reliever Cla Meredith since he has lost his job as primary set-up man to Mike Adams. The Giants plan to keep a close eye on the innings-pitched totals of left-hander Jonathan Sanchez and right-hander Tim Lincecum for the remainder of the season. Left-hander David Wells, who finished last season with the Dodgers, says he is retired, though he has no plans of making a formal announcement.

---

Scouts' views on various major leaguers:

  • Rangers designated hitter Milton Bradley: "For me, he is going to be the most interesting free agent on the market this winter. The guy can hit and is having his best season, but will someone roll the dice on a long-term contract with a guy this volatile? I think a lot of people in baseball are very curious about how this turns out."
  • Tigers right-hander Kyle Farnsworth: "The Yankees traded him at the right time. They got the most you could possibly hope to get out of this guy this season, because you know he'll implode in the end. He always does."
  • Royals outfielder Jose Guillen: "The guy lets his temper get the best of him sometimes, but he truly is a gamer, and all he wants to do is play every day and win. The guy wants to win so badly, but he's just never figured out how to express that in a more positive way. That's really too bad, because he has good intentions at heart."
  • Nationals closer Joel Hanrahan: "I like that they're giving him the chance to close now that they've traded [Jon] Rauch. He's got the stuff, and now we'll see if he's got the mindset to pitch the ninth inning."

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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