Countering Bob Smizik

Bob Nutting - Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette
Bob Nutting announces the firing of Dave Littlefield - Andy Starnes, Post-Gazette

I understand that Pirate fans are angry and frustrated. It is easy to look at the annual 60-something win total combined with a bottom of the barrel payroll and feel a sense of bitterness. But I don’t really understand some of the reactions to a simple interview with Bob Nutting.

Time for an FJM look at Bob Smizik’s latest Pirate-related post.

Nutting believes he has a plan in place, and he does. That might not sound like much, but considering how the Pirates have operated in the past it is an improvement. Whether that plan will work remains to be seen.

In any evaluation of the Pirates’ future three things must be considered:

• Almost all of the other 15 National League franchises also have a plan.

Is this really one of the three things to consider about the Pirates’ future? The fact that there are other teams in the league? And looking at teams like Houston, I’m not sure this statement is true.

• With the possible exception of Washington, none of those franchises is starting from as far back as the Pirates.

This was probably true a couple of years ago, say around 2007. And we are not quite out of the woods yet. But with Andrew McCutchen roaming center field, and Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata on the way, I think this statement is a bit of hyperbole.

• None of those franchises has an ownership group more reluctant to spend.

More hyperbole. Yes, the Pirates’ major league payroll is annually near the bottom of the league. But it has exceeded that of the Marlins on average of more than $10 million per year the past five seasons. The Bucs have also been one of the top spenders in the amateur draft since Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington were hired. This is all common knowledge.

This is to say the hill the Pirates must climb back to respectability is steep, very steep. The path to championship contention is steeper still.

Sure, the Pirates still have work to do. And the path to championship contention is steep for nearly every team.

Which leads us to what amounts to the state of the franchise interview Nutting gave to Post-Gazette beat reporter Dejan Kovacevic and which appeared in the Monday editions of the paper.

You’d think after proclaiming last year, “”We’re not going to accept an inferior performance,” and accepting just that, Nutting would be more careful with his words. He wasn’t. Like I said, he doesn’t embarrass easily.

That’s weird. He accepted it? At least six of the eight starting position players will be different this year from Opening Day 2009. There will be two new pitchers in the starting rotation. The entire bullpen will be different. It seems to me that plenty of changes occurred. But I’m sure that will be looked at negatively later in the article.

In answering Kovacevic’s second question, which dealt with whether progress should be expected, Nutting said:

“Oh, absolutely. We are going to win more games than last year. We are going to see improvement on the field in Pittsburgh, in terms of wins and loses. We have to.

“I said last year that was my expectation and, midway through the season, we clearly weren’t seeing that. And the team took decisive action, made change. That’s part of why you have the broader pool from which the pieces will come for 2010 and moving forward.’’

Makes sense. The Pirates won 62 games last year. Not anticipating to exceed that total in 2010 would mean expectations are probably too low.

That second paragraph simply is not true. The Pirates did not begin making trades when expectations weren’t being met. They began making trades when they were ahead of expectations. And they often traded players who were ahead of anyone’s expectations, most notably Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett.

If a player is playing above expectations, that probably means we can expect them to regress. That is the perfect time to trade someone.

Let’s go back to 2008. Xavier Nady, at 29-years-old, was having a career year, one that was a total outlier from his overall track record. Based on a few months of elite offense, some were calling for the Pirates to sign him long term. Huntington abstained, dealing him with Damaso Marte to the Yankees for an elite prospect and possibly 40% of our 2010 starting rotation. Nady fell off and performed at his previous career level for the remainder of the season. He missed nearly all of 2009 due to injury and left as a free agent. Nyjer Morgan was another 29-year-old having a career year that was also an outlier from his previous performance record. Huntington dealt him at high value as well. And Sean Burnett is simply a below average reliever that was succeeding due to an unsustainably low BABIP.

The Morgan/Burnett trade will turn out to be twice the steal that the Nady/Marte trade has been.

Every time the Pirates made a trade, beginning with Nate McLouth to Atlanta in early June when they were four games under .500, they were ahead of the pace they set in 2008. They did not fall behind that pace until the final trade was made, at which point all the high-priced veterans were gone and the Pirates were stuck with a miserable talent level.

The Pirates were 24-28 when they traded Nate McLouth. That is a .462 winning percentage, good for 75 wins over the course of a season. How dare they sabotage the chance at such success!

By the way, here are some major league performances after the McLouth trade:

Nate McLouth: .257/.354/.419
Andrew McCutchen: .286/.365/.471
Garrett Jones: .293/.372/.567
Lastings Milledge: .291/.333/.395

Charlie Morton: 4.15 FIP

McLouth probably would have been an upgrade over Milledge in left, but the Pirates received a definite boost in the starting rotation in Morton. Also, If McLouth isn’t traded, the outfield probably consists of McLouth, McCutchen and Milledge. Thus, Garrett Jones, the Pirates’ best hitter in the second half, would have received only limited playing time. I still fail to see how the McLouth trade hurt the Pirates at all in 2009.

What the heck, while we’re looking at post-trade performances:

Freddy Sanchez: .284/.295/.324
Jack Wilson: .224/.263/.299

There were reasons the Pirates made those trades last year, and I don’t disagree with most of them. But they were not made because the team, as Nutting suggested, was playing below expectations.

The trades were made to better the team for the future. That was possible because the 2009 team as it was constructed was unlikely to crack the 75-win mark.

Later Nutting was asked about what had to be the single most ridiculous comment of his tenure. After the Pirates finally signed No. 1 draft choice Pedro Alvarez in the summer of 2008, Nutting called team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington “the single best management team in all of baseball, maybe in all of sports.”

His answer was equally ridiculous:

“And I’ve never backed away from that comment.’’

Well, he should have. Coonelly and Huntington are not anywhere near the best management team in sports and Nutting makes himself look like a buffoon by standing by his original comment. There are other way to support your management team than lavishing them with overblown praise.

Nutting could have backed away from his original comment, maybe even by poking fun at himself. Then he could have reasserted his confidence in Connelly and Nutting without making them sound like Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein of the Boston Red Sox.

Personally, I have no problem with Nutting believing that he has the best management team in place. He should believe that, or he should bring in someone else to run the team. Sure, there is probably some exaggeration to the quote. But maybe Nutting is looking at the fact that Huntington turned Nyjer Morgan into Lastings Milledge. Or that the organization’s number of legitimate starting pitching prospects has quadrupled in just over two years. Or that Xavier Nady has morphed into Jose Tabata, plus additional players. Maybe he noticed that Huntington’s largest blunders have been giving away one year of a productive Salomon Torres for nothing and losing out on a 16-year-old Latin American prospect that may never sniff the majors. Maybe Nutting has some valid reasons for believing in his management team.

Next question:

“What’s your view of the talent pool that could be in Pittsburgh at some point in 2010?’’

Answer: “Clearly, we have more depth, more options. And what I’m thrilled about is that Neal has the time and opportunity to make good baseball decisions to be able to pull people up when it’s appropriate to the player’s development.’’

Balderdash. The Pirates are significantly weaker on the major-league level than they were at this time last year and they have less options at that level. The fact they have presented Jeff Clement with an opportunity to win the starting first base job in spring training speaks volumes to their lack of talent and clearly shows Huntington is not able “to pull people up when it’s appropriate to the player’s development.”

Clement batted .224 for Indianapolis last season after he was traded to the Pirates from Seattle. In a major-league trial with the Mariners in 2008, he batted .227 with a .295 on-base percentage and a .360 slugging percentage. He hit five home runs in 203 at bats.

That wouldn’t even get an invitation to spring training on some teams, let alone the opportunity to win a starting job.

Clement also hit .288/.366/.505 for a .380 wOBA in 421 plate appearances with Seattle’s Triple-A club. In 211 Triple-A plate appearances in 2008, he hit .335/.455/.676 with a .475 wOBA. Yes, he struggled in his first major league opportunity at age 24 and while he attempted to play through an oblique injury last year in Indy. But ignoring the rest of his stats is obvious cherry picking.

And are the Pirates really “significantly weaker” than they were a year ago? They have upgraded in left by replacing Nyjer with Milledge, McCutchen is a superior option to McLouth in center and Garrett Jones should be an upgrade over Brandon Moss in right. Tabata is nearly ready to take over a starting spot in the Pittsburgh outfield. Andy LaRoche is still at third with an additional year of experience, and an impact talent is bubbling just below the surface in Alvarez. Ronny Cedeno will likely be a slight downgrade from Jack Wilson at short. Akinori Iwamura and Freddy Sanchez are a wash and Clement will adequately replace Adam LaRoche at first. Ryan Doumit and Jason Jaramillo remain behind the plate. In the starting rotation, Charlie Morton and Daniel McCutchen will be upgrades over Ian Snell and Jeff Karstens, and Brad Lincoln should be a welcome addition at some point. The bullpen will be better, and the bench and Triple-A depth have also improved. Ryan Church and Brandon Jones could both be average corner outfielders if Milledge or Garrett Jones falter, and Jones could slide to first if Clement disappoints.

I have no idea how that all adds up to make them “significantly weaker on the major-league level.”

But I guess none of that matters.

  • WilliamJPellas
    February 5, 2010 4:40 pm

    I’m on board with most of this article, and I generally don’t have a lot of time for Smizik’s curmudgeon routine. But there is no way Pat Clement is going to be anywhere close to Adam LaRoche. If Clement can last the whole season and scratch out something like .250-20HR-60 RBI, we should count our blessings. That’s not saying Adam LaRoche is Albert Pujols, just that Clement is not LaRoche. Not even close.

    • I was going by Clement’s CHONE projection (.264/.342/.460), which is fairly similar to LaRoche’s numbers while with the Pirates. Clement’s defense is basically a crapshoot at this point, so you may be right if we take that into account. But CHONE projects his defense at about average, making both players expected 2010 performance about the same.

      • WilliamJPellas
        February 5, 2010 8:30 pm

        Well, I sure hope you’re right, Matt. Clement was a first round draft pick once upon a time, and it might be that some of his underwhelming-to-date big league performance was due to his various injuries. Then again, maybe that means he’s permanently damaged goods. He’s already had one or two knee surgeries and another operation on his throwing arm. Nothing would make me happier if he could produce the kind of numbers CHONE says he will. I’m just highly skeptical that he can.

  • And, as I pointed out to him, the Pirates went 9W – 19L in the first 2 months of divisional play. Their 11-10 record in April was dependent on an unrealistically low ERA.

    By the end of month 2, it was clear the Pirates were not going to be close to winning anything in 2009.

  • “Every time the Pirates made a trade, beginning with Nate McLouth to Atlanta in early June when they were four games under .500, they were ahead of the pace they set in 2008. They did not fall behind that pace until the final trade was made, at which point all the high-priced veterans were gone and the Pirates were stuck with a miserable talent level.”

    What the hell is Smizik talking about? McLouth was traded on June 3. After 52 games in 2009, they were 24-28. On May 28, 2008 after 52 games, the Pirates were 24-28. On June 30th they traded away Hinske, Morgan and Burnett. After 76 games they were 35-41. On June 22, 2008, after 76 games they were 36-40. Adam LaRoche was traded on July 22 after the 94th game of the season. The Pirates were 42-52. On July 13, 2008 after the 94th game the Pirates 44-50. Then the Wilson, Snell, Sanchez, Grabow and Gorzelanny trades. On July 30 after 101 games they were 43-58. In 2008 after 101 on July 23 they were 47-54.

    So basic quick simple research shows that early on the Pirates were on pace with 2008, but not ahead of it after a very lucky and unlikely April. Furthermore, what did all these “high priced veterans” really do for the Pirates besides lose 90+ games for four straight seasons? Bob Nutting was right, it made little sense to keep around a team full of guys that had never even put a winning team on the field and weren’t running away with anything, especially not first place in the NL Central.

  • Awesome. No really, awesome. I was cackling while reading this because it’s just you tearing up Smizik’s insane ramblings.

    Highly enjoyable.

Menu