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August 2, 2009

On the Beat

Rust Belt Teams Rusted Out?

by John Perrotto

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Contrary to popular opinion, the Pirates have not been rebuilding forever. It just seems that way. Since Sid Bream beat Barry Bonds' throw home to rally the Braves to a 3-2 victory in the bottom of the ninth inning of Game Seven of the 1992 National League Championship Series, the Pirates has been undergoing one rebuilding program after another.

However, after one of the largest in-season makeovers of a roster in recent memory, Pirates general manager Neal Huntington says the rebuilding is over. He held a team meeting Friday night before the opener of a four-game series against the Nationals to tell the players who had survived the purge and those who had just joined the organization that the dust had cleared.

"These are our 25 guys, for the most part, the group we are moving forward with," Huntington said subsequently. "This is the team we want to grow together and have them go out and outwork and outperform the competition and evolve into a championship team. I'm not saying that every guy on our roster now is going to be here next July-it never works that way in baseball. Every guy in that clubhouse, though, is going to have an opportunity to step forward and be a part of it."

The Pirates are 45-58 and a near-lock for a 17th consecutive losing season, which would set the American professional sports record for most sub-.500 finishes in a row. However, after such an extreme makeover that includes having just five players remaining from last season's Opening Day roster, Huntington believes the Pirates have a nucleus of young talent, both at the major and minor league levels, that will allow the organization to be competitive over the long haul. "We need to break the cycle of losing," Huntington said. "We need to break the cycle of being in a situation where we're making trades every year. We have the pieces in place to build something."

Huntington has certainly shuffled plenty of pieces this season as he made seven trades in a span that covered a little less than two months. It started June 3 when he dropped a bombshell by trading center fielder Nate McLouth, who had signed a three-year, $15.75 million contract in February after winning a Gold Glove and playing in the All-Star Game in his first full season as a starter in 2008. In return, the Pirates got right-hander Charlie Morton and two prospects, outfielder Gorkys Hernandez and left-hander Jeff Locke.

The Pirates made two more trades on June 30, shipping outfielder Nyjer Morgan and left-handed reliever Sean Burnett to the Nationals for outfielder Lastings Milledge and reliever Joel Hanrahan while sending four-corner reserve Eric Hinske to the Yankees for two minor leaguers, right-hander Casey Erickson and outfielder Eric Fryer. First baseman Adam LaRoche was sent to the Red Sox on July 22 for a pair of prospects, shortstop Argenis Diaz and right-hander Hunter Strickland.

These were only precursors to a big deadline week. The Pirates had a busy day on Wednesday, first sending shortstop Jack Wilson, right-hander Ian Snell, and $3.3 million to the Mariners for first baseman Jeff Clement, shortstop Ronny Cedeno, and three right-handed pitching prospects: Nathan Adcock, Brett Lorin, and Aaron Pribanic. Later in the day, second baseman Freddy Sanchez was traded to the Giants for right-handed pitching prospect Tim Alderson. Huntington finished his work Thursday by trading left-handers John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny to the Cubs for right-handers Kevin Hart and Jose Ascanio and infield prospect Josh Harrison.

While Huntington did enough trading to earn a nickname like "Wheel and Deal Neal," he admitted that, while he wasn't exactly breaking up the 1927 Yankees, he took no joy in taking a chainsaw to his roster and subjecting himself to plenty of heat from the fans for trading away such favorites as Wilson and Sanchez. "The toughest thing in this job is trading players and letting staff members go because you're uprooting the lives of people and their families," Huntington said. "I hate it. It's the worst part of the job, by far. These weren't easy moves to make. In fact, it was very difficult to trade some players who have meant so much to the franchise, but we're trying to build a winning organization. You have to put emotion aside, as difficult as that may be, when you have the chance to better the talent in the organization. We feel like we're building something here."

Now, the Pirates are left with a major league roster on which veteran utility infielder Ramon Vazquez is the only player over 28. They have also an improved farm system that includes four prospects ranked in the top 100 in the game by Baseball Prospectus's Kevin Goldstein coming into this season: third baseman Pedro Alvarez, outfielder Jose Tabata, Alderson, and Hernandez.

The changes haven't gone unnoticed among the players still on the squad. "I know a lot of people are burying us and think we have no chance to be competitive now," third baseman Andy LaRoche, himself a trade acquisition from last summer's swaps, said. "I think everyone should just wait and see. We have talent on this team. It is young talent and relatively unproven talent, but I don't think that it means we're going to be pushovers. I really think we're on to something here."

---

Until their run of success in the 1990s, the Indians were long the laughingstock of baseball as they went 41 seasons between 1954 and 1995 with a post-season appearance. It is starting to look like the bad all days all over again in Cleveland-sans the Cuyahoga River catching on fire-as the Indians became the first team in history to trade a reigning Cy Young Award winner in consecutive seasons. Left-hander Cliff Lee was dealt on Wednesday to the Phillies along with outfielder Ben Francisco for a package of prospects that included right-handers Carlos Carrasco and Jason Knapp, catcher Lou Marson, and shortstop Jason Donald. That came a year after the Indians traded CC Sabathia to the Brewers for four minor leaguers.

Of the eight players the Indians received for their Cy-onaras, none are on the active major league roster. Couple that with popular catcher/first baseman Victor Martinez being traded to the Red Sox on Friday for right-hander Justin Masterson and two pitching prospects, left-hander Nick Hagadone and right-hander Bryan Price, and Indians fans were left furious. Their team, which hasn't won a World Series in 61 years, has been torn apart less than two years after losing to the Red Sox in seven games in the American League Championship Series.

"As a fan it's probably hard to feel good about that," Lee said of the back-to-back Cy Young sendoffs. "Losing one Cy Young winner one year and then losing another one the next year, it's probably hard for the fans to swallow but that's the nature of the game. Obviously Mark felt he was making the team better with those moves."

Lee was referring to Indians GM Mark Shapiro, who said he had to make some moves because he would be unable to exercise clubs options for all of a group of three key players that included Lee, Martinez, and right-hander Jake Westbrook. However, it seems the Indians' budget crunch goes beyond that, as they effectively lopped $25 million off of next year's payroll by trading Lee ($9 million option), Martinez ($7 million option), reliever Rafael Betancourt ($5.4 million salary), first baseman Ryan Garko (likely $2 million salary as he will be arbitration-eligible for the first time), and Francisco (likely $600,000 salary).

"There was some lack of conviction on the part of management on the team's ability to contend next year, if we kept Lee and made zero additions in the offseason, which is what ownership said would have to be the case," Shapiro said. "So I had to weigh in my mind keeping Cliff and trying to contend next year, knowing that after next year Cliff, Victor, and Jake would all be gone."

Shapiro believes the Indians brought back enough good young players in the trades to become competitive quickly. At 43-61, they have obviously written off this season, though. "We feel we've added the talent that will help put us in a position to create an extended run of contention, starting next year and beyond," Shapiro said. However, he does admit winning the AL Central in 2010 would be rather unlikely. "It would have to be a Florida Marlins-type story," he said.

---

The Blue Jays' highly publicized attempt to trade right-hander Roy Halladay before Friday's non-waiver deadline failed as the Phillies shifted gears and dealt for Lee. No other team matched the high price the Blue Jays were asking. So where do the Blue Jays go from here? General manager J.P. Ricciardi said they will try to win in 2010 in what would likely be Halladay's last season before becoming a free agent.

So the idea the Blue Jays would totally tear their club apart and try to dump the bad contracts of outfielders Vernon Wells and Alex Rios has changed, and they may even be buyers in the offseason. The Blue Jays, though, did ship third baseman Scott Rolen to the Reds when he asked to be traded closer to his native Indiana.

"With Doc on board, we still have a pretty good club" Ricciardi said. "Really, not very much has changed. We said all along that we thought that we might be looking at next year, especially if we get some of our pitching back, to go with the rookies who have stepped up this season. Obviously, we have had a couple of guys who haven't performed the way we and they expected to. Right now we're trying to get through this year but we see a lot of upside in 2010. It'll come down to how well we perform offensively."

The Blue Jays feel that Edwin Encarnacion, acquired from the Reds, can be a more than suitable replacement for Rolen at third. They also tried to trade first baseman Lyle Overbay before the deadline, with the idea that left fielder Adam Lind would move to first and Travis Snider would return from Triple-A Las Vegas to play left. Overbay is owed $7 million next season in the final year of a four-year, $24 million contract, so the Blue Jays will renew their efforts to trade him over the winter.

---

Even at 50, Rickey Henderson insists he could still be a major-league outfielder, at least in a reserve role, if a team would give him a chance. While that certainly isn't going to happen, he said while being inducted into the Hall of Fame last weekend that he would like to return to the majors as a coach and teach young players his secrets.

Dave Stewart, one of his former Athletics teammates, believes Henderson would be an outstanding coach, and even thinks he could be a good manger. Henderson has a personal-services contract with the Athletics and will serve as a spring-training instructor next year. General manager Billy Beane said he would be open to having Henderson become a full-time coach. "Whatever he puts his mind to. We talked a little about it," Beane said. "He has a lot to offer. If it's something he's committed to, it's certainly something worth discussing."

However, there are those who still want to see Henderson scoring runs and stealing bases. As one fan yelled out during Henderson's induction speech, "Play, Rickey, play."

---

MLB Rumors and Rumblings: The Yankees would prefer to limit right-hander Joba Chamberlain to 140 innings this season, which means he has only 29 1/3 left to go, and which would seem to mean that a trade has to be made to strengthen a rotation with no remaining depth. The Giants want to talk to Freddy Sanchez about a multi-year contract extension and the Mariners want to do the same with Jack Wilson. The Twins are ready abandon their outfield rotation, which would leave Delmon Young as the odd man out in the pennant race, leaving the team with an alignment of Denard Span in left, Carlos Gomez in center, and Michael Cuddyer in right. The Phillies are leaning towards moving left-hander J.A. Happ to the bullpen if right-hander Pedro Martinez shows he is able to handle the rigors of being a starting pitcher. The Dodgers will continue to look for bullpen help in August waiver deals. The Braves have no plans of thrusting outfielder Jason Heyward into a pennant race even though the 19-year-old is tearing up the Southern League at Double-A Mississippi Orioles third baseman Melvin Mora wants to play four more years, though it seems doubtful he will make it to his age-40 season with his production in steep decline. Nationals first baseman Dmitri Young is expected to retire after tearing a quadriceps while playing at Double-A Harrisburg on an injury-rehabilitation assignment.

---

Three series to watch this week, with probable pitching matchups (all times Eastern):

Giants at Astros, Monday-Wednesday (August 3-5)
Matt Cain vs. Mike Hampton, 8:05 p.m.; Jonathan Sanchez vs. Roy Oswalt, 8:05 p.m.; Joe Martinez vs. Brian Moehler, 2:05 p.m.

Rockies at Phillies, Tuesday-Thursday (August 4-6)
Jason Hammel vs. Jamie Moyer, 7:05 p.m.; Jorge De La Rosa vs. J.A. Happ, 7:05 p.m.; Aaron Cook vs. Cliff Lee, 1:05 p.m.

Angels at White Sox, Tuesday-Thursday (August 4-6)
John Lackey vs. Jose Contreras, 8:11 p.m.; Ervin Santana vs. Gavin Floyd, 8:11 p.m.; Joe Saunders vs. D.J. Carrasco, 2:05 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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