Sunday, March 25, 2007

More than you ever wanted to know about Pirates Spring Training '07

This is probably the most aggravating time of year. Pitt found yet another way to lose in a Sweet 16 (shooting 38% on layups is a new one on me), rendering college basketball dead to me. The Penguins are basically playing out the schedule until the playoffs start in April, which is going to kick ass because I haven't gotten to see playoff hockey since the Kasparitis swan dive.

Still my favorite hockey memory ever, even though I didn't really like hockey back then. Even my apathy at the time was not enough to overcome my desire to reenact Kaspar's celebration over and over again in my front yard. Still one of the greatest NHL postseason series ever.

The Steelers are busy signing their latest hard-working no-name linebacker that they can turn into a demon. It's even the international break in soccer, which always makes for a boring weekend. I just can't get that excited for Landon Donovan's bald spot. And no one can get excited for yet another England nil-nil draw starring Frank Lampard being useless as shit.

And, of course, in baseball, it's reached that point in Spring Training where the novelty of playing games again from the beginning of the month has worn off, and you just can't wait for the real games to start again, for the stats to start mattering.

I've been awfully silent about the Pirates for a lot longer than I'd intended, so I'll take the time now to review the key issues that have faced Your Favorite Team That Absolutely No One Cares About.

The infield saga

First, one of the big things heading into camp was the whole Jose Castillo vs. Jose Bautista battle that really started over the winter when Jack Wilson basically called Castillo out for being fat and lazy.

Jose Castillo's alter ego?

Jack Wilson was basically right, but everyone still made a big deal out of it and was very quick to take sides. None was quicker than Jim Tracy, who immediately served up a delicious bit of irony by lambasting Jack in the press for not taking care of such business behind closed doors.

Then, of course, Pirates management showed they were fully backing up Wilson's statements by first announcing that there was one open spot in the infield, and that it would come down to one of the Joses. Then we were treated to just about daily assessments from Jim Tracy about how Castillo was supremely disappointing, followed by the inevitable declaration that Bautista was the "winner" based on his superior plate discipline. Oh, and all the while, Castillo was also in the process of moving to third base because he's "stocky" now and it affects his range at second (and because Neil Walker was also moving to third base and he'd be much less likely to be blocked by the likes of a couple of league-average Joses than Freddy Sanchez).

While I agree that Bautista is probably a better player at this point, absolutely no one outside of the fan base has touched on the fact that, meanwhile, Jacksi Wilsayoun gets to make $4 million to provide absolutely nothing to a Major League lineup. And not only that, but he's going to continue to bat second as long as Jim Tracy is alive.

The takeout slide heard round the confluence

In one fell swoop, Rod Barajas caused thousands of people to simultaneously cringe when he slid into Freddy Sanchez's knee because Freddy decided early March would be a good time to play chicken with a 230 pound catcher.

As with all injuries to Pirates, it started out as just a minor tweak that would keep Freddy sidelined for a week at most before morphing into a serious twist that could even force the reigning NL batting champ to the DL to open the season.

No team is better at misdiagnosing injuries than the Pirates. This is the team that signed Pat Meares to a three-year contract extension less than a week after he broke a bone in his hand that essentially left him permanently unable to swing a baseball bat, something that's pretty crucial for someone whose job it is to perform such tasks.

Jason Kendall's gruesome ankle injury was most likely originally diagnosed as a mild abrasion.

Probably the Pirates' head trainer.

The Battle for the Bench

Freddy's injury causes all sorts of recourse throughout the rest of the team, since it means that even after his whole odyssey, Jose Castillo will still wind up as the opening day second baseman. Ironically, the same exact place he was last year.

This opens up an extra bench spot, widening an already intense competition. There are only five spots because no one associated with the team has ever heard of a six-man bullpen. The competitors:

Nate McLouth - Probably the closest thing to a lock on the team. I used to have something of a man-crush on Nate, but then the Pirates completely fed him to the wolves when they pampered Chris Duffy for two entire months, and then he severely sprained his ankle in August, ending his season. It was a shame, because he was starting to put things together a little bit now that he could actually hit against right-handed pitchers since Jeromy Burnitz had played himself into irrelevance. My prospect man-crushes have not worked out very well (Sean Burnett, McLouth, Brent Lillibridge). Thank God Shane Youman is too old to be a prospect anymore.

Luis Matos - Also most likely makes the team by virtue of being the only right-handed "true" center fielder still in camp. I have no problem with this, since he's not as much of a black hole at the plate as his injury-marred 2006 indicates. He's above average in the field, so the Pirates could do far worse as far as Chris Duffy's caddy is concerned. Hell, he might even hit better than Duffy as a regular. But none of this is important, since the only reason Abner Doubleday even invented center field to begin with was to prepare for the coming of Andrew McCutchen. Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, Jr., all those guys? Just keeping the seat warm.

I'll refrain from pulling a Woody Huyke, but it's certainly not far from the truth.

Jody Gerut - Oh wait sike. It's still pretty impressive to me that the Pirates turned Jason Kendall's albatross of a contract into Arthur Rhodes, which they turned into Matt Lawton, which they turned into Jody Gerut, which turned into a 60-year-old ex-football player because who the hell else has such pathetic knees? Well, at least Jonah Bayliss is still alive and kickin'.

Jose Hernandez - The man they call "Jim Tracy's Stepson" is back for a third go-round with the Pirates, since apparently his whiff-laden first couple of stints didn't provide enough wind power for Duquesne Power and Light to run every air conditioner within a twenty mile radius of PNC Park. Still, there's actually a decent chance Jose K doesn't make the cut, which would be cause for celebration.

Don Kelly - If Hernandez doesn't make the team, it'll most likely be because Jim Tracy has inexplicably fallen in love with this Mt. Lebanon High School graduate. Lebo's hall of fame:

Don Kelly is 27 and has a high OPS of .625 at the AAA level, but he still has the chance to become John Wehner reincarnated in that he's a local boy who has really done nothing to prove he warrants a Major League roster spot, but somehow sticks with teams as a utility player year after year because he's somehow earned the undying love of a manager (in Rock's case, it was Jim Leyland who took Wehner with him everywhere he went). For this reason, Don Kelly would be excellent. We all would benefit from John Wehner, part deux. Bonus points if he has a yinzer accent. Oh, and if Kelly makes the team, it most likely means Jose Hernandez has been cut, and that would be an excellent thing to happen.

Fun facts about Don Kelly:
- He bats left-handed, which is part of the reason Jim Tracy fellates him in the Post-Gazette every morning. To me, this is nothing special. If he threw lefty I would totally be rooting for him because there are no left-handed infielders.
- He has one home run this spring in a team-high 58 at-bats, equalling his total in 397 AAA at-bats.
- He is the brother-in-law of Neil Walker, a tidbit that I'm sure Lanny Frattare will bring up at least twice per game this season.

Brad Eldred - The man they like to call "Big Country" (gosh, I wish people would start getting a little more creative with their nicknames) has been one of the most intriguing stories of the spring so far. He was pretty much the forgotten man after tearing his thumb a month into the 2006 season, turning 26, and having the misfortune of belonging to a baseball team whose fanbase you would think had never seen a left-handed power hitter before, judging from their reaction to the Adam LaRoche deal. Eldred hit home runs in his first five Grapefruit League games, prompting the Pirates to move him to the outfield. You'd think we'd tremble at the thought of a 6'5", 260-pound man roaming right field, but we've had to watch Matt Lawton, Craig Wilson, and Jeromy Burnitz butcher the position that the Great One once graced with his presence. Nothing fazes us.

Ryan Doumit - Doumit's inability to stay healthy combined with the fact that everyone has a boner for Ronny Paulino has pretty much turned him into the newest project for the people who started the "Free Craig Wilson" movement. Last season, when Ronny was raping his way to lead NL rookies in batting average and home plate collisions won, Jim Tracy had the brilliant idea of converting Ryan Doumit to first base before, in typical Jim Tracy fashion, openly roasting Doumit after he failed to come up with an awkwardly-hit ball during a crucial situation in a game the Pirates went on to lose. Nevermind the fact it was the second time Doumit had ever played the position in his life.

Jim Tracy,

Then the Pirates went out and got a first baseman, so Doumit was again shuffled to right field. Now, it's been revealed that because of some wacky loophole, he has an extra option somehow and might even start the season in AAA. Naturally, this is the most logical solution since Ryan Doumit can not only bat from the left side, but hit home runs as well, and these are two things the Pirates generally shy away from.

Humberto Cota - The Pirates/Office Space thread is a popular one, and so this is a conversation I like to imagine actually taking place:

"So, uh, Humberto, you are a...backup catcher?"

"Yes, that's right. I'm currently the longest-tenured Pirate, so I know the pitching staff extremely well."

"But technically, you can't actually hit, and hitting seems to be part of the job description for a Major League Baseball player."

"Well, no...but occasionally, on the rare instances when I do make contact, I sometimes can hit it as far as the warning track..."

"Look, Bert, we're going to cut to the chase. What exactly would you say it is you do here?"

"I already told you! I'm Mexican, I deal with the Hispanic pitchers so Jim Tracy doesn't have to! I catch once a week to keep Ronny Paulino from dying of overexhaustion from having to catch way too many 10-pitch at-bats because Paul Maholm refuses to attack the strike zone. I'm a goddamn backup catcher! What the hell is wrong with you people?"

Seriously, though, Humberto Cota is just about the most useless player in Major League Baseball. The problem is, Jim Tracy is a traditional head-in-his-ass "baseball man," and insists on having a true backup catcher whose only purpose is to rot on the bench waiting for the starter to suffer some fluke injury. Because clearly, if someone who actually has value as a pinch-hitter, like Ryan Doumit, is the only "backup catcher" on the roster, that puts the team in the precarious situation of using Doumit and then having Ronny Paulino stub his toe in the 8th inning. Because there's no way at least one of the 24 other guys could kneel behind home plate and catch a ball for an inning and a half and not completely embarrass themselves. And since this situation occurs way more often than once a season, it's simply not a risk worth taking.

Mike Ryan - This guy may have actually been cut already, I forget. He's not actually a good baseball player, but he's from the Pittsburgh area and is actually having a pretty nice spring. He's left handed and one of his only plus attributes is power, but it shouldn't be enough to warrant carrying two left-handed backup corner outfielders.

Xavier Nady - I'm listing Nady here as a protest to the fact that he's virtually been cemented into the 5th spot in the lineup. The guy who has one walk and zero extra-base hits in 29 Grapefruit League at-bats. Before you get in my face about Spring Training stats being meaningless, know that it's basically a continuation of his performance after arriving from the Mets last July, when he piled up 11 walks and 3 home runs in 203 at-bats as a Pirate. At the time, we were willing to use PNC's goofy dimensions as an excuse for the lack of power, but I have a feeling the angry yinzers will not be so lenient this time. It's okay, maybe if I say "Andrew McCutchen" three times into my mirror the savior of baseball in Pittsburgh will suddenly appear in right field at PNC Park.

My choices would be Doumit, Eldred, Kelly, McLouth, and Matos. Jim Tracy is probably going to pick the exact opposite.

The Starting Rotation Derby

If you didn't know a single thing about baseball and just started paying attention some random spring, you'd think that the 5th starter is the most important role in baseball. Such is the hype that is given to a competition that essentially boils down to who is the least bad in most cases.

In the Pirates' case, the team always heads into March with one or two clear-cut favorites, and it's always nearly impossible to beat these favorites out. This year, there was a twist, because the battle was really for the "fourth starter" because the Pirates handed Tony Armas Jr. a multi-million dollar contract just to be guaranteed of a 4.50 ERA and virtually made him a lock before he even signed. Being honest, the $3 million the Pirates are giving Armas is actually a pretty good deal in the current market for starting pitchers.

So the battle for the one open rotation spot wasn't actually supposed to be a battle, but supposed lock Tom Gorzelanny shit his pants every time he took the mound. Let's examine the contestants for the 2007 version of the annual 5th Starter Derby:

Contestant #1: Shane Youman
Former 43rd-round draft pick
Eligible for Nigerian citizenship
Bizarre example of someone becoming better after converting from relieving to starting
Made AAA debut at age 26
2.91 ERA in September MLB cameo
Owner of a bitchin' gumbo recipe
Better at wearing his hat at an angle than Shawn Chacon
Spring 2007: 1 earned run in 9 1/3 innings


Contestant #2: Sean Burnett
Former 1st-round draft pick
First prospect to ever fully become an object of my man-love

2.84 ERA after first 8 career MLB starts as 21-year-old in 2004 before left arm fell off
Took picture with me at PirateFest 2005

Now two years removed from arm reattachment surgery

Better at wearing his hat at an angle than Shawn Chacon despite being unmistakably white
Spring 2007: 5 hits, no earned runs, and 9 Ks in 11 1/3 innings


Contestant #3: Tom Gorzelanny
Former 2nd-round draft pick, thus avoiding law of physics that states all pitchers drafted by the Pirates in the first round will undergo major surgery at some point before the age of 25.
Really goofy looking
Led National League in Most Misspellings of Last Name by Own Team's Fans
The only left-handed Pirates pitching prospect that could potentially strike out more than 120 batters in a season
3.79 ERA in 11-start stint last summer, marred by uncharacteristic wildness
Spring 2007: 9.45 ERA, 24 hits, 14 walks in 20 innings


Okay, I don't have a problem with Gorzelanny winning the job based on last year's performance, but the posturing that Jim Tracy and company have been doing borders on ridiculous. All spring the mantra has been "may the best man win," and I don't think you can ask Sean Burnett and Shane Youman to have done a whole lot more than they did. Something is clearly off with Gorzo, and I'd just as soon he iron it out in Indianapolis before he gets shelled in his first four starts. I love Burnett and Youman and I want both of them to be in the Pirates rotation by the end of the year. Preferably at the expense of Armas and Maholm (who I just don't think is all that good).

Oh, and while we're on the subject of 5th starters...

This is absolutely fantastic news. Apart from 1997, 2003 is my favorite season in recent memory. 2003 was the year of Matt Stairs riverwatch, Reboulet's Army, and, of course, the ball of kerosene that is Julian "Scarecrow" Tavarez. Scarecrow generally leads the league in ejections, causing benches to clear, and suspensions. He's pretty much single-handedly responsible for lighting the fire under the epic Lloyd McClendon/Tony La Russa feud, a feat he managed to accomplish while pitching for both teams.

I'm reasonably sure he was getting away with scuffing the ball for a while, because during his season with the Pirates, his ground ball/fly ball ratio was an astounding 3.35 and he gave up just one home run in 83 2/3 innings all year. Since then, his GB/FB rates have declined and his home run totals have risen, coincidentally starting around the same time Lloyd pulled the Asshole La Russa trick, except Lloyd turned out to be better at it and actually got Scarecrow suspended for all that gunk he keeps on his hat.

It gets better, though. As the schedule falls now, Tavarez stands to pitch on April 13, the same night I happen to have four tickets to Red Sox vs. Angels at Fenway Park. It's fate. It has to be.

I'll just have to put up with the incessant griping by Red Sox fans about how "bad" Julian Tavarez is. Seriously, if you don't want Julian Tavarez on your team, you clearly don't understand or enjoy the sport of baseball in the slightest. So go fuck yourselves.

Bullpen, bullpen, who's in the bullpen?

Last, but certainly not least (especially not least in the eyes of Dave Littlefield), we get to that all-important relief corps. In the last ten years (now that 1997 is actually 11 seasons ago, which is really not a comforting thought at all), the best chance the Pirates had of being competitive was 2003. They had the lineup and the rotation to be competitive, at least until the trading deadline fiasco that we don't like to talk about around here (although I'm sure Brandon will be more than happy to explain it in great detail). But the bullpen that season, led by All-Star Mike Williams and his 6.27 ERA, was an arson squad. This was a season in which Joe Beimel pitched in 69 games. This is never a good thing.

I can't shake the nagging feeling that the bullpen, a perceived strength coming into the season, is again going to let the team down in a big way. The biggest question marks are about whether Salomon Torres can handle closing and Matt Capps (who's been abysmal this spring) can bounce back from making the third-most appearances by any rookie pitcher ever. The other two didn't have careers after that. This does not bode well for a pitcher who only has one pitch, as Capps does.

The rest of the bullpen has shaken out pretty much as planned, with Damaso Marte attempting to reprise his role as the lefty specialist. John Grabow got hurt last week and still hasn't even thrown from a mound, and is likely headed to the DL. This is really a blessing in disguise because John Grabow has never actually been good and it'll give some other loogies like Juan Perez a chance to see if they can be decent.

That leaves two more spots, which was revealed in Monday's Post-Gazette would go to two of Dan Kolb, Josh Sharpless, and Jonah Bayliss. Marty McLeary, sadly, seems destined for AAA. Of the three, I'd much prefer the latter two, because I'm liking Kolb less and less as the spring progresses. Even when Kolb was good, he set records for fewest strikeouts by a 30-save pitcher. Now that he's not good anymore, I'm not sure I ever want him coming into a game with runners on base.

I actually would most prefer for Kolb (or anyone besides Torres, really) to become the closer, because it'd mean Torres could perform the role in which he most thrives (i.e. pitching every single day), and whoever the closer is couldn't possibly be harder to endure than Mike Williams' "walk em full, strike out the side" mentality to racking up robust save numbers.

Meanwhile, Shawn Chacon gets to hang around and be a $3 million version of Ryan Vogelsong. White cloth has never been so expensive.

Shawn Chacon has a fun celebrity doppelganger though, in the form of Travis "Schleprok" McCoy. Chacon's a lot fatter, but that's who I think of whenever I see Chacon on the mound with his jauntily-angled hat.



So, is this the year the Pirates finally exorcise the demons?

Probably not, and I'll continue to want to break things every time I see this image. But at least we still have Ian Snell and Bob Walk bobblehead giveaways to look forward to.

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