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Know Your Enemy 2005 - Part II, B - The Pirates
by Derek Smart
Yesterday, we saw that the Pirates starting lineup looks like a low wattage outfit. Can their pitching staff and bench provide enough spark to make up the difference?
When discussions began with the Padres in 2003 over a possible deal for Brian Giles, the name that seemed to keep surfacing on the Pirates' wish list was Oliver Perez. And why not? Young, left-handed strikeout pitchers don't just grow on trees, and while he was scuffling during the time the trade was negotiated, his potential was undeniable. When San Diego finally capitulated, Perez came over to Steeltown and continued to have growing pains, and it appeared as if Pirate fans might have to wait to see all that potential realized.
Ladies and Gentlemen of Pittsburgh, the wait is over.
Is his 2.98 ERA, seventh among Major League pitchers who qualified for the ERA title, not impressive enough for you? How about his WHIP of 1.15, good for ninth among the same group? Or his Major League leading (again, among ERA title qualifiers) 10.97 strikeouts per nine innings? There's also his twelfth place finish in pitcher VORP (54.4) despite throwing less than 200 innings, should you care to consider such things.
There is no player on the roster the Pirates need more now, or in the future, than Perez. No one else has the current value, no one else has the ceiling. Despite his wonderful 2004, he could still work on some things - specifically, walks and homers - but he's already made progress on that front, which had a lot to do with his excellent showing last year. A little refining in those areas, and you're looking at a flat-out A-list, dominant pitcher.
However, there are questions that linger about his durability, and his youth plays into that - after all, he'll only be 23 this year. The good news is, Lloyd McClendon has done a nice job of not overworking Perez, only allowing him one start that went over 120 pitches (it was 122) in 2004, and giving him occasional extra days off throughout the season. If the Bucs can keep him healthy and active, they should have a very fine pitcher on their hands, and whether or not he stays on their hands beyond 2008 will say a lot about the health of the franchise in general.
Slotted to follow Perez is Kip Wells, who chased his first two very solid campaigns in the black and gold with a disappointing and injury-shortened 2004. Elbow inflammation truncated his year and made the time he did pitch less effective than one would expect, the main issue being a loss of control both in and out of the zone that resulted in more walks, hits, and long balls - not a primer on run prevention.
Wells had surgery during the offseason, which seems perfectly normal until you notice where the surgery was - on his wrist. It seems that Wells suffers from carpal tunnel syndrome, and it affected his right middle finger, in particular causing numbness and weakness, which goes a long way toward explaining his control problems (you try pitching with a numb middle finger, particularly on breaking stuff). So carpal tunnel release surgery was performed to fix the problem.
Now that's been handled, and reports so far are good despite some early stiffness in his right forearm, but there remains the lingering question of his elbow - namely, how much did he damage it last year, and will it hold up over the course of the season? We may not know until bad things start happening, or he's been pain free for a long time. The Pirates desperately need him throwing like he's capable of every fifth day, so they obviously will be praying for the latter.
Third in line is a guy I can't help but like, Josh Fogg. He's not a great pitcher, not really even a good one, but there's just something about the way he goes out there and battles that's appealing to me. He lacks the stuff to torch you, but neither does he have anything particularly deceptive in his arsenal, so he's forced to simply out-think you. When he's successful he's inducing weak grounders - he strikes out fewer than five per nine over his career - and when he's not, well, you'd best duck.
There's nothing in Fogg's performance record to make one think we're seeing anything but his finest work, and that's where the issue lies. It would be one thing if he could post a near-league-average ERA while throwing 200+ innings, but he's never thrown more than 194.1 in a season, and that was back in 2002. Borderline competence combined with durability is a skillset with value, but one without the other isn't worth paying to keep, and that's exactly what Pittsburgh is doing with Fogg, to the tune of $2.15M.
As his price rises, his value falls, and it would behoove the Pirates to give some of their younger arms a shot next season and make 2005 Fogg's last in the City of Steel.
Acquired as part of the Kendall trade, lefty Mark Redman will take the fourth turn every five days. He turned a solid but somewhat park-deflated 2003 into a three-year, $12M deal with the A's that only serves to underline just how human Billy Beane is, or perhaps, how unlucky. Decent but not great, Redman had his best season before entering the market, and if he had merely regressed to his previous level, the deal would have still been solid.
Unfortunately, instead of becoming the Mark Redman of, say, the 2002 Tigers, he became something altogether different - a low strikeout, taterific, hit machine. His control was still decent, and his ERA was only a smidge higher than the league, but he lost the ground he had gained in hits allowed and strikeouts with the Marlins, and reached an entirely new level of homer happiness. The Pirates are hoping that K-rate goes back up, and the dingers go down, or they could be looking at an upside of league average.
The battle for the final rotation spot will be waged between the favorite, lefty Dave Williams, the talented but inconsistent Ryan Vogelsong, frightening NRI Albie Lopez, and the Bucs finest pitching prospect, Zach Duke. Williams will be in the rotation, Vogelsong will go to the minors or the bullpen, Duke will go to Nashville, and Lopez will go home.
They say actions speak louder than words, but in the case of Jose Mesa in 2004, inaction was the one doing all the talking. Contenders are nearly always looking for bullpen help at the deadline, and last year was no exception. In particular, the Chicago Cubs were almost certainly in the market for a closer or some general relief help, but not only did they not come after Mesa, it seemed that nobody did.
Granted, I'm not privy to these sort of things, but I would assume the Pirates were willing to unload him, and either nobody asked, or when they did, offered table scraps for what the Bucs saw as a fine fillet. Perhaps it was, indeed, a lack of willingness on Pittsburgh's part, because it seems to me that if a contender wanted to deal for the likes of Mike Williams a scant year previous, surely someone would be after Mesa. Or maybe they were all too scared.
The declining K-rate and walk rate coupled with a fairly high hit rate imply that Mesa was simply trying to throw strikes, duck, and pray. Lucky for him he didn't get crushed, but I wouldn't count on that lasting. He'll turn 39 in May, and if that homer rate or walk rate go up, look for results even worse than 2003, and even if they don't rise, expect less than what 2004 delivered and a probable replacement in the final frame.
If there's any justice in the world, Mike Gonzalez will get the closer call when Mesa's head hits the table, despite his being left-handed. There's a fairly strong bias in the game against using port-sided closers, Billy Wagner aside, but handedness is a lousy reason not to use your best reliever in the situations you've prescribed for such beasts.
Gonzalez is that man, hands down, bringing the filthiest stuff of anyone in the pen, and being an equal opportunity slayer of right and left-handed bat-dragons. Granted, if I'm making the decisions, he's the man I use in tough situations late, regardless of whether it's the ninth, the eighth, or the seventh. If I have a one run lead in the seventh, nobody out and men on second and third, I want Gonzalez in there striking guys out and breaking bats. But most Major League managers want a guy like that throwing the ninth, and assuming Lloyd McClendon falls into that category, Gonzalez should be his closer.
Except it may not work that way, for precisely the same reason, silly though it may be, that I mentioned above - the issue of Gonzalez' handedness. So, in the seeming inevitable event of Mesa's collapse, when Lloyd McClendon goes looking for the best reliever available from the right side, he'll almost certainly settle on Salomon Torres.
Famous in these parts for literally cracking Sammy Sosa's armor, Torres isn't a half-bad choice to finish off games. If there's a knock to be had, it's that he's not overpowering to any degree and isn't much of a strikeout pitcher. However, as I see it, that job requirement comes from the days when "closers" were also "firemen" and there might be the occasional tense faceoff with men on base.
As the role has become less about coming into difficult game situations and more about handling the difficult psychological situation of the final three outs, it seems that being a fireballer is less important than just keeping men off base and dealing with the emotional trauma of occasional failure. True dominance isn't required so much as simple competence and an ability to slough off the deleterious effects of adversity. Torres has the competence part down, so he's a good bet to get the opportunity to show his mettle.
This seems like a good point to bring in an expert, namely, Rowdy from Honest Wagner. Assuming Mesa does lose the closer job at some point, does he see Gonzales or Torres getting the nod?
Either one could do the job. Gonzalez is still a kid and as the lefty, he probably has a disadvantage versus Torres given Mac's tendency to play matchups. There are more right-handed hitters.
All that said, if you believe that the team is better off using their best pitchers first, then maybe you want to see Coach Mesa stay all year to keep the
younger and perhaps more effective guys pitching the seventh and eighth.
With so many young starters, the Bucs need a bullpen that can go three or four innings to close some games. So don't be surprised if Mesa hangs around all year. Will he be back next year? It's doubtful but who knows. Would Littlefield trade him for the right deal? Of course. So nothing is set in stone.
This is an awfully left-leaning bullpen (maybe they should give the Brewers a call), and the only other right-hander with an assured spot is Brian Meadows, a pitcher best described as serviceable. Over his career, opponents have hit .299 off him, but last year saw that figure drop to .259, only the second time in his seven years that his opponent's batting average has been below the .290 mark.
It was his first year spent entirely in the pen, so for those of you more sunnily inclined, that seems like a fine explanation. However, if you love those dreary clouds, it's entirely possible that Meadows was merely hit-lucky last year and that 2005 will see a return to his days of slightly below-average mediocrity.
The last two men in the pen, lefties John Grabow and Mike Johnston, are built along those same mediocre lines. Neither pitcher exhibited good control, but Grabow was more consistently hurt by it because of his propensity to give up the long ball, despite having better stuff. Depending on their spring performances and the number of pitchers Pittsburgh decides to take north, these gentlemen could be joined or supplanted by NRI right-hander and fellow catchpenny hurler, Mark Corey.
I feel kinda bad for Humberto Cota. Being a backup for Jason Kendall is as close as a catcher might get to feeling the pain of being a #2 shortstop behind Cal Ripkin Jr. In fact, being Kendall's caddy could be even worse, since your starts are so infrequent you have no chance at asserting a rhythm, and as the only other backstop on the roster, pinch-hitting opportunities are scattershot at best. At least Ripkin's shadows couldn't shoot their careers in the foot with 60 sub-par at bats.
Happily for Cota, while he isn't the starter, he is backing up Benito Santiago, and as potential suitors to play Wally Pipp go, Santiago's an excellent candidate. Too bad Cota makes a lousy Gehrig.
Backing up first, and likely being mercifully removed from the list of potential outfield helpmeets, is Daryle Ward of "This is Daryle Ward's year to break out," fame. Well, it's not, and he won't, but as far as left-handed bench bats go, one could do a lot worse. He may get to act as the regular first baseman if a playing time chain reaction is begun with the removal of Tike Redman from the population of Starterville.
Once a candidate to start at second base in the Majors, Bobby Hill has become little more than a solid reserve with decent patience and little defensive skill. He was never going to be a Gold Glover, but once upon a time he had some speed and pop to make up for his leather deficiency. Now he can do little more than occasionally get on base and play the part of Cardboard Cutout #3 in the field. There's some value there, but the minute he's arb-eligible, he should be non-tendered.
Rob Mackowiak is about as prototypical a utility man as you're likely to find. He can do everything defensively but catch and play short, and when he's wielding the stick he brings a little patience and a little pop to the party. There's nothing he does well enough defensively or offensively to merit a starting job, but he does nearly everything with a level of competence that serves his team well off the bench. He is what Jose Macias wants to be when he grows up.
The Bucs could use another reserve outfielder, and that's why Ben Grieve was given an NRI. He does a nice job getting on, but he strikes out a lot, has lost much of the power his early career promised, and is as useful defensively as a severely hobbled watermelon. He should make the team and provide some value off the bench, but this sort of wandering minstrel act, traveling yearly like a vagabond from job to job, is the most he has to look forward to, and the most any team should offer him. Mr. Hill should buy Mr. Grieve a beer and find out how he handles this sort of thing from a real estate perspective.
Here we are with a nearly full bench, and nary a man to backup Jack Wilson at short. This job should fall to either mostly busted prospect, Freddy Sanchez, or NRI Jorge Velandia, as I can see no one else on the roster or NRI list who is remotely qualified for the position. Neither option is palatable - Sanchez because it's unclear if he can actually handle short, and Velandia because he's just plain bad. Besides, if there's any prospect fairy dust left on Sanchez he should be playing full time anyway. One of them will make the team, though, and who it is might come down to roster shenanigans or the lack thereof.
The good news is, the Pirates are young. The bad news is, "young" doesn't always translate to "good". True, there are players like Jason Bay and Oliver Perez to think of as cornerstones for some rosy future, but there would need to be other players around them to make that future come about, and not only aren't they here yet, they don't look to be on the horizon.
As for this year, the pitching staff is a relative strength, particularly at the top of the rotation, but Perez and Kip Wells are not nearly bulwark enough to keep the damage inflicted by the offense (or lack thereof) from sinking the Pirates' ship. This is a potentially last place team in a division where mere solidity should give you a shot at the title, but Pittsburgh has failed to achieve even that meager goal. Pirates fans have my sympathy, as 2005 should be another dark year for a franchise that hasn't seen the light in years.