April 8, 2009
On the Beat
Changes in Slow Motion
This much can be said for the Pirates as they begin what seems to be an inevitable march toward dubious history: they are not deterred. If the Pirates finish with a losing record this season, which seems a certainty with the state of their roster, it will mark 17 straight years of sub-.500 baseball. That would break their tie with the 1933-48 Phillies for not only the longest streak in major league history, but in American professional sports history.
The Pirates could have panicked in their attempt to avoid another losing season and overspent in a soft free-agent market over the winter. They could have brought in enough middling talent to make a push for an 82-80 record and to end their ignominious streak, but instead, the Pirates continue to stick to the plan they put into place late in the 2007 season when chairman Bob Nutting, who had taken control of the franchise earlier that year, swept out the trio of chief executive officer Kevin McClatchy, general manager Dave Littlefield, and manager Jim Tracy, replacing them with president Frank Coonelly, GM Neal Huntington, and manager John Russell.
The Pirates' plan isn't revolutionary, but rather a reasoned blueprint that so many other small-market teams have used to become successful. They want to draft and sign international free agents, develop those players in their farm system, and then use a home-grown nucleus supplemented by a handful of free agents and trade acquisitions to build a team that can compete consistently. "It's the proven way for a team in our situation to put a competitive team on the field, and we're not going to waver from that philosophy," Nutting said. "We believe our faith in this plan will be justified in the end."
The implementation of the strategy has not come without its share of resistance, both inside the clubhouse and by a fan base beaten down by seeing all of their favorites being traded off for young players. There was particular dissatisfaction last July, when the Pirates were 50-58 and had a chance to surpass the .500 barrier with a strong finish, but the Pirates instead dealt away veterans and stuck with their rebuilding program. Outfielder Xavier Nady and left-handed reliever Damaso Marte were traded to the Yankees on July 26 for essentially ready right-handers, Jeff Karstens and Ross Ohlendorf, and two prospects, righty Daniel McCutchen and outfielder Jose Tabata. Then, literally seconds before the non-waiver trade deadline on July 31, left fielder Jason Bay was dealt to the Red Sox in a three-way swap that saw Boston ship Manny Ramirez to the Dodgers; the Pirates got back right-handed reliever Craig Hansen and outfielder Brandon Moss from the Red Sox, and third baseman Andy LaRoche and right-handed pitching prospect Bryan Morris from the Dodgers.
Stripped of two of their best players and a key reliever, the Pirates stumbled to a 17-37 finish that gave them an overall record of 67-95 and a last-place finish in the National League Central. The Pirates drew their share of criticism over the winter when their biggest moves were to acquire two veterans for the bench via free agency in infielder Ramon Vazquez and four-corner player Eric Hinske. While that did little to placate the fans, an address to the team by Coonelly early in spring training seemed to change the players' attitudes. "We talked about the process," Coonelly said. "I wanted them to know that things had changed here. Many of them have been around a while and know why we have not been successful. They need to know things have changed in this organization."
Second baseman Freddy Sanchez, one of the longest-tenured Pirates who had been acquired from the Red Sox in a trade during the 2003 season, has bought into the new philosophy. "It wasn't easy losing guys like [Bay and Nady], because they're good players and good people," said Sanchez. "But you can see the plan they have here now. I really believe we are on the right track. In the past, it just seemed like we would go out and sign guys just to sign guys, or make trades just for the sake of making trades. You can see the reasoning behind everything now, and the attitude has never been as upbeat as it is now. I really believe we're going to surprise a lot of people this season. We're a better team than people think."
PECOTA doesn't see any immediate difference; it pegs the Pirates to have the worst record in the majors at 64-98, and it's easy to see why. They have only three hitters who had EqAs over .260 last season: center fielder Nate McLouth (.300), catcher Ryan Doumit (.297), and first baseman Adam LaRoche (.290). Left-hander Paul Maholm (5.3) was the only starting pitcher to finish with more than 2.3 WXRL, while left-hander John Grabow had an underrated year with 3.4 WXRL, and closer Matt Capps (2.0) was sidelined by shoulder soreness for nearly seven weeks in July and August.
The Pirates have legitimate hopes for the future with such prospects as third baseman Pedro Alvarez, center fielder Andrew McCutchen, and Tabata likely to be in the starting lineup at some point next season, but it will be tough selling this year's club to Pittsburgh fans who have been spoiled by the Steelers winning two Super Bowls in the past four seasons, and also treated to the Penguins advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals last year.
Nutting believes that, in the long term, the fans will enjoy the fruits of the Pirates' plan and Huntington's labor. "I think Neal has done a tremendous job," said Nutting. "If you look at where we were when he came in, and the focus Neal has brought building a diverse team, an interesting group of people who are willing to give constructive dissent, he really has changed the approach that we've had. The results he's had, as far as infusing talent and building the developmental system, have been immediate and significant. Ultimately, Neal is going to be measured on how the team performs, but right now I'm very impressed with the steps we're making."
Sam Zell is admittedly not a baseball guy, and he became owner of the Cubs only because it was part of his purchase of the Tribune Company two years ago. He takes no interest in the team and allows chairman Crane Kenney to run the franchise, continuing the dispassionate operation of the franchise that began when the Tribune Company bought the Cubs from the Wrigley family in 1981.
While the Cubs have won the NL Central during both seasons of Zell's ownership, the players are looking forward to the ownership transfer to the Ricketts family, which is expected to take place next month. "With the Tribune, you didn't really know who they were," first baseman Derrek Lee told Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune. "There really was no face to it, but it seems like the [Ricketts family] will probably be around. They're from the area. They're fans. So I can see them being around, and you can put a face to it. It'll make it a little more personal." Pitcher Ryan Dempster echoed those sentiments. "I think it'll be pretty nice to shake someone's hand and see who your boss is," he said.
One of the challenges facing the Ricketts is what to do about Wrigley Field. Will they renovate the venerable facility, or anger many Cubs fans by building a new stadium? Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano told a reporter from The Associated Press last week that the Cubs need a new ballpark. He then backed off those statements after drawing the fans' ire. "They don't have to be mad," said Zambrano. "I didn't say they have to build a new stadium. If the Cubs do it, we will be much better and more comfortable as players. It's my opinion. Sometimes, when fans say something about players, you have to respect it. But I didn't say we should move. I love Wrigley Field. It's a nice ballpark, but if the Cubs think in some period of time, 10 or 20 years from now, they need a new ballpark, then it should be a nice ballpark."
It will be five years in October since the Red Sox reversed the curse and ended their fabled 86-year championship drought by sweeping the Cardinals in the World Series. The Red Sox have won another World Series since, but their image has made a 180-degree turn in the interim, going from being seen as a band of freewheeling "Idiots" in 2004, to the more buttoned-down current version.
GM Theo Epstein says that the change in personnel reflects the change in attitude around the franchise. "When we first got here, I thought there was almost a culture of fear and paralysis in the clubhouse," Epstein, who joined the organization in 2002 and moved into his current post a year later, told Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe. "There was so much dysfunction and distrust that it was dehumanizing to a certain extent. The first thing we wanted to do was get people to relax and have fun again, and to build a fraternity in the clubhouse. Players like Kevin Millar and David Ortiz were brought in and really contributed to that. We were loose. We were 'the Idiots,' and that was part of the antidote to the dysfunctional culture of fear and paralysis that previously existed."
The vibe around the clubhouse became so much better that the Red Sox no longer feel the need to have cutups and wild men on the roster. In their stead are talented players with more toned-down personalities and professional approaches. They may not be as zany, but they continue to win as the Red Sox came within one game of going to the World Series last season after winning it all the year before. "It's fun to watch," Epstein said. "I don't find Dustin Pedroia boring. I don't find Jonathan Papelbon boring. These guys, day in and day out, battle to win 95 games in the toughest division in baseball. They're trying to win a third World Series in six years. I find that really exciting, and I think most baseball fans in Boston feel the same way. I think people who follow baseball like a soap opera might not appreciate the team quite so much, but in the end, I think the reason people like baseball is just the game itself, and to watch the team's play."
The Athletics used young pitching to make the postseason as a small-payroll team for four straight seasons from 2000-03, building their club around starters Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. Now they're trying to replicate that by beginning the season with a starting rotation comprised of five pitchers 25 years old or younger. Left-handers Dallas Braden and Dana Eveland are both 25, southpaw Josh Outman is 24, and lefty Brett Anderson and right-hander Trevor Cahill are both 21. They had combined to make just 63 major league starts coming into the season, 35 by Eveland, 24 by Braden, and four by Outman. "They are young but extremely talented," Athletics second baseman Mark Ellis told Jeff Fletcher of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat. "There might be some bumps in the road, but if you talk about their overall makeup, those guys are pretty impressive to watch on the mound."
The 1978 Brewers were the last major league team to begin the season with five starters younger than 26, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Jerry Augustine started the opener and was followed by Moose Haas, Lary Sorensen, Andy Replogle, and Randy Stein. The Brewers wound up going 93-69 for their first winning season in what was then the franchise's 10-year history, though they finished third in the seven-team American League East behind the Yankees and Red Sox.
Three series to watch this weekend with probable pitching matchups: