Hurdle’s Law vs Murphy’s Law—Fighting for the Future of the Pirates

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Pending a physical, the Pirates have agreed to a 2-year, $14 million contract with free agent lefty Francisco Liriano. This winter, in addition to Liriano, the Pirates have added catcher Russell Martin (2-years, $17 million) and retained pitcher Jason Grilli (2-years, $6.75 million negotiated with Grilli’s agent Gary Sheffield. Yes. That Gary Sheffield.) These moves follow last spring’s acquisition of A.J. Burnett from the Yankees and the summer trade for Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros. During the 2012 season, they also received cheap and talented youngsters Travis Snider from the Blue Jays and Gaby Sanchez from the Marlins.

Liriano’s acquisition mirrors the Pirates’ trade for Burnett. Liriano is a superiorly talented underachiever whose results will benefit from the National League and the big Pirates’ park. Looking at the club on the whole, the Pirates have a batch of young players that they’re in the process of surrounding with veterans who have playoff experience and have played for well-run, winning organizations.

The Pirates collapsed in the second halves of both 2011 and 2012; endured rightful public indignation at their assistant GM Kyle Stark implementing ridiculous physical and mental training techniques for their minor leaguers; and struggled to shake the hapless image that has been their albatross for two decades. The entire front office from team president Frank Coonelly to GM Neal Huntington to Stark were said to be in jeopardy of losing their jobs at the conclusion of 2012 and still aren’t completely secure, but owner Bob Nutting retained all three, staying the course along with manager Clint Hurdle and trying—not putting forth the pretense of trying, but actually trying—to win by spending some money.

They haven’t simply taken on onerous contracts of other clubs either, nor have they drastically overpaid in terms of years/dollars to get veteran help. The Pirates got Burnett from the Yankees for low level non-prospects while paying a third of Burnett’s $16.5 million salary in 2012 and will pay half in 2013. They got Rodriguez from the Astros for three nondescript minor leaguers and are paying $8.5 million of his $13 million salary. Now with Liriano, the rotation of Burnett, Rodriguez, Liriano, James McDonald and as early as 2013, Gerrit Cole, the Pirates can compete. Andrew McCutchen is a true all-around star and MVP candidate; Pedro Alvarez has tremendous power; and with Sanchez, Martin, Neil Walker and Garrett Jones, they’ll score enough to support that starting rotation. In the weakened National League Central—with only the Reds substantially better on paper—and the extra Wild Card, there’s an opening for the Pirates.

The front office is constantly on the precipice of doing something stupid and are discussing trading closer Joel Hanrahan. What they get for him and whom they use to replace him should be planned before pulling any trigger and I wonder whether Hanrahan’s pending free agency after 2013 is more of a catalyst to this talk than any potential return or concerns about the righty’s effectiveness. I would not trade Hanrahan unless there are extenuating circumstances or the offer is too lucrative to turn down. They’re going to need him.

As always, there’s a dubious nature surrounding the Pirates’ plans and intentions and much of their rise has been due to a vast number of high draft picks and not overwhelming wisdom from the front office. But in spite of the collateral stories and questioning glances, there’s much to be enthusiastic about in Pittsburgh and it’s not Sidney Crosby (if the NHL ever plays again) or Ben Roethlisberger. It’s McCutchen, Cole and the other youngsters the Pirates have developed along with their shiny new veterans. Players are no longer shunning the Pirates or going to Pittsburgh because they have nowhere else to go. Given the team’s reputation around baseball as a wasteland where young players run out the clock to free agency and veterans go for a final job, that new perception is not a small thing.

There’s still that hovering feeling of Murphy’s Law that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, particularly because of the still shaky status of the front office and the owner’s blindness to the harsh and exhausting realities of being a baseball player. It’s highly possible that Nutting’s expectations will outweigh what the team can accomplish and he’ll let his displeasure be known early if the team isn’t markedly better immediately. At that point, changes might be made in the front office.

Even with the looming dysfunction, they have enough talent to rise from the ashes of their 2011-2012 stumbles, use them as learning experiences, and contend for seven months rather than four. Murphy’s Law says that the Pirates will remain the Pirates, but that’s being counteracted by Hurdle’s Law—the law that dictates not taking crap and not making excuses.

They have the talent to win. And they just might.

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Your Final 2012 Manager/GM Hotseats and Predictions

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Some managers have already been dismissed and others will be gone as soon as the season ends tomorrow night. Let’s go through the list of the obvious and otherwise.

Manager Joe Girardi/GM Brian Cashman—New York Yankees

The Yankees are in the playoffs and barring a dreadful stumble in the final two games against a Red Sox team that’s waiting to be put out of its misery, they’re going to win the division. But, as the Yankees from top-to-bottom have repeatedly said, they’re not in it to make the playoffs. Anything short of a good showing in the ALCS and the manager could be in jeopardy. It’s not Girardi’s fault and if he’s going to be tossed over the cliff, I would advise him to handcuff himself to Cashman as they’re going over because it’s Cashman who should be in trouble.

From the trade that sent Jesus Montero and Hector Noesi to the Mariners for Michael Pineda and Jose Campos (both on the disabled list), to his questionable development of pitchers (Manny Banuelos is going to have Tommy John surgery), and his off-field mishaps, there are many reasons to say enough’s enough with Cashman.

In an ordinary situation, firing the manager/GM for a team that has won 90+ games and made the playoffs would be ludicrous, but the Yankees have a World Series or bust attitude and a $200+ million payroll. Add it up and people will be held accountable for a fall.

Manager Bobby Valentine—Boston Red Sox; Manager John Farrell—Toronto Blue Jays

I’ll discuss them together since they’re all tied together.

Valentine’s putting up the front of expecting to be back because no one’s said anything to him directly and he has a contract for 2013, but he’s gone and he knows he’s gone. This Red Sox disaster was not due to the manager. He was part of the problem, but even had they kept Terry Francona or hired one of the candidates preferred by GM Ben Cherington, 2012 wouldn’t have gone much differently.

Farrell and the Red Sox are eyeing one another like desperately lonely singles at a middle-aged mixer and the Blue Jays will take advantage of that and get a player in exchange for Farrell. I doubt it’ll be someone as significant as Daniel Bard, but they might get something of use and not have to pay Farrell off if they wanted to fire him.

The Red Sox had better get Farrell better talent because his stoic countenance, handling of the media, and remembrances of years gone by as the Red Sox pitching coach aren’t going to yield any better results than what Valentine got without massive changes to the personnel. In fact, since Farrell’s in-game managerial skills are poor, the Red Sox might be worse with Farrell than they are with Valentine.

The Blue Jays know what Farrell is, are unhappy with his open flirtation with the Red Sox, and have seen his “strategery” on a daily basis for two years now. If there wasn’t this clear lust between Farrell and the Red Sox with the Blue Jays thinking they can get something out of it and not have to pay Farrell for 2013, they might fire him.

They need a manager who will handle the youngsters and correct mistakes as they happen; someone they can trust to make the sensible game decisions. I’d go with someone older and uncompromising like Larry Bowa, but if (when) Farrell leaves, they’ll hire a Don Wakamatsu-type. Most anyone would be a better game manager than Farrell. After a short honeymoon, the Red Sox will learn, much to their dismay.

The Blue Jays should wait to see what the Yankees do with Girardi. He’d be a great fit in Toronto.

Manager Jim Leyland—Detroit Tigers

Much was made of the Tigers underachievement and that Leyland is working under a 1-year contract with no deal for 2013, but the Tigers problems weren’t the fault of the manager and they came back to win the AL Central. He’ll be back if he wants to come back, but I’m getting the inkling he might retire. The Tigers are a great spot for Francona.

Interim Manager Sandy Alomar, Jr.—Cleveland Indians

The Indians are interviewing Francona, but the team is restarting their rebuild and won’t have the money to pay Francona or to bring in the players he’s going to want to win. It’s a no-win situation for him because he’d be risking his reputation by overseeing a team that’s starting over and would revert to the “nice guy and meh manager” rep he had with the Phillies before he wound up in Boston.

Alomar is a top managerial candidate, is popular in Cleveland and will get the fulltime job.

Manager Mike Scioscia—Los Angeles Angels

The Angels missed the playoffs after spending a ton of money on Albert Pujols and C.J. Wilson; GM Jerry Dipoto and Scioscia are not exactly buddies; and owner Arte Moreno is understandably upset.

They’re saying that Scioscia will be back, but I’m not so sure. This is another great situation for Francona.

GM Jack Zduriencik—Seattle Mariners

Zduriencik should be safe to at least fulfill the final year of his contract and see if the team improves in 2013.

The entire Marlins baseball ops

From President of Baseball Operations Larry Beinfest on down to manager Ozzie Guillen, it’s been speculated that the baseball people in the front office were in trouble, then that was quashed after which it was said that Guillen is on the firing line.

I don’t see anyone as safe and I think owner Jeffrey Loria is simply going to fire everyone in a “Kill ‘em all and let God sort them out,” manner.

Team President Frank Coonelly and GM Neal Huntington—Pittsburgh Pirates

After the Pirates came apart in the second half and the scandal of putting young prospects through Navy SEAL training, Huntington’s and assistant GM Kyle Stark were rumored to be in trouble; Coonelly put the kibosh on that, but Coonelly himself isn’t all that secure.

I think they all get fired.

Manager Jim Tracy, Colorado Rockies

There’s an odd dynamic in Colorado in which everything is done in a friendly, agreeable manner. Former GM Dan O’Dowd willingly took a demotion in favor of new Bill Geivett wielding the power in the baseball ops. Manager Tracy has an indefinite, handshake agreement to stay as manager, but it sounds as if they’re going to make a change with Tracy staying in some capacity.

Presumably they’ll go with someone younger in the Chip Hale variety as the new manager.

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Managerial Tornado, Part I—Acta, Mills, Valentine, Pirates, Marlins

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The managerial tornado is touching down. Some, like the fired Manny Acta and Brad Mills, were caught in its path and disappeared; others landed to clean up the wreckage. The Indians fired Acta yesterday and, predictably, replaced him with Sandy Alomar Jr. In spite of the designation as “interim,” Alomar is going to get the fulltime job in part because the Indians are restarting their rebuild, in part because they don’t have any money to pay a big name manager, in part because if they don’t give him the job another team is likely to hire him, and in part because he’s popular in Cleveland. He’s a top managerial prospect and very nearly got the Red Sox job last year.

With the Marlins preferring a cheaper, younger, calmer presence than Ozzie Guillen and Alomar’s ability to speak Spanish, he’d be a good choice to take over that mess. The Angels’ situation is unsettled and the Rockies job might come open.  Regardless of his denials, Red Sox GM Ben Cherington slipped up by essentially saying straight out that he’ll use a different strategy to replace Bobby Valentine. Cherington later tried to “clarify” his remarks. Just stop it, huh?

Firing the manager is the easy thing to do and sometimes unavoidable. Acta has functioned in bad luck for his managerial career with a lack of talent on his rosters. He was the Nationals’ manager as they were losing so relentlessly that the were able to secure the top picks in the draft two straight years and were lucky enough to have once-in-a-decade franchise players sitting there waiting for them with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper. Two managers later, Davey Johnson is reaping the benefits. With the Indians, injuries and underperformance did Acta in. His firing was fait accompli even though upper management itself, GM Chris Antonetti and team president Mark Shapiro, are under siege for their mistakes. Some have wondered why the Indians didn’t wait until the season was over, but they’ve done this before with Eric Wedge and they were firing Acta anyway, so what’s the difference? He’s a Rene Lachemann-type: someone who knows what he’s doing, is well-respected as a baseball man, and hasn’t had the luck of other, inferior managers like Bob Brenly. Brenly could’ve been replaced by a mannequin, few would’ve noticed and the strategic mishaps would’ve been far fewer.

The mistake that owners and top bosses make is even acknowledging the media’s questions about the managers and GMs when said managers and GMs have long-term contracts. Whether or not they’re thinking of making a change or the decision has already been made, there’s nothing to be gained by replying as if the speculation has validity. Pirates’ GM Neal Huntington and his gung-ho assistant (to the point of sociopathic behaviors) Kyle Stark are said to be on the firing line because of the Pirates’ collapse and Stark’s ridiculous Navy SEAL training regimens for low-level minor leaguers. Team president Frank Coonelly was asked about their job status of his staff and said they’re going to be back for 2013. That’s funcutioning under the assumption that Coonelly is safe and I don’t believe that Coonelly’s job is particularly secure, so if Coonelly is fired, one would assume that the rest of the front office will be out the door as well. I’d have fired Coonelly two years ago.

The Marlins are a disaster and after initially believing that Guillen would survive in part because of his 4-year contract, the team has quit, Guillen dared owner Jeffrey Loria to fire him, and they’re scaling back payroll to $70 million. First the front office led by Larry Beinfest was predicted in jeopardy, now it’s implied that the front office is safe and Guillen is going to be dumped. I believe that Loria’s going to fire everyone and start over.

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The Pirates Navy SEALs Training: Designed to Kill and Get Executives Fired

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Ordinarily, I’d want to have a deeper understanding of exactly what the Pirates were doing when they decided to implement Navy SEALs training techniques for their minor leaguers. It was possible that the Pirates took aspects of the training—including the mindset—and adapted them to baseball. Many different training techniques that have become of value to baseball players such as plyometrics; parachute training; isometrics; cross-training by throwing a football all would’ve been seen as idiotic as recently as 20 years ago. Football coaches—including Vince Lombardi—used to refuse to give water to their players during summer training camp. Watch the film The Junction Boys about Paul “Bear” Bryant to see how deranged training camps were for college kids, the majority of whom were playing because they wanted to. So if the Pirates took the camaraderie that is instilled by Navy SEAL training and the fitness along with it, why not?

But according to the linked pieces I found here on Larry Brown Sports, the Pirates are reinventing the wheel and doing it in a way designed to get the executives who decided it was a good idea fired and drummed out of baseball entirely.

You can read the Dejan Kovasevic piece; the Pirates’ assistant GM Kyle Stark’s email here; and Jeff Passan’s column about it in which he discusses hand-to-hand combat and baseball’s reaction to this decision.

They want them to take the attitude of the Hells Angels? I certainly would prefer not to have my baseball players taking the personae of a sleazy, borderline satirical group with absurd militaristic designations such as “Sergeant-at-Arms” or other stranger-than-fiction silliness. But this is what the Pirates have chosen to do for reasons known only to them. There’s nothing wrong with fostering brotherhood, bonding, or a “take no crap” attitude. But to force teenagers who have substantial money invested in them into this type of training when it’s never been done before is a combination of arrogance and stupidity.

There’s thinking outside the box and tweaking innings pitched and pitch counts; there are theories of teaching hitting advocating patience or aggressiveness; there are varying theories of defensive shifts and positioning. There are many things in baseball that could and should be changed. I’d be an advocate of shortening spring training, among other things. But this? This is something that is so antithetic to baseball—the same sport for which John Kruk said something to the tune of, “I’m ain’t an athlete, I’m a baseball player,”—that people who decided to try it are going to get fired and deserve it.

This isn’t debating on the merits of running sprints vs weight training; it’s training more directed at slitting Stephen Strasburg’s throat rather than getting a hit off of him.

The Pirates were on the way to a very positive place earlier this season and still might be. There’s plenty of talent on the big league roster and in the organization. I see them as similar to the Minnesota Twins of 2001, a team that got off to a great start after years and years of futility and essentially collapsed in August and September, but used the experience as a life-lesson and became the dominant team in the AL Central for a decade with the only thing missing from their list of accomplishments being a World Series. Clint Hurdle has altered the culture and the Pirates are a good bet to take the next step of their innocent climb in 2013 and if I were to start a club with any player, Andrew McCutchen would be at the very top of that list. The future is still bright for the Pirates, but they’re going to be doing it with a new braintrust in the front office.

Stark can live out his tough guy fantasy in some other industry. GM Neal Huntington can go because he was the one who apparently okayed this. Frank Coonelly can be dispatched because he’s been clueless from the time he was appointed as the team president. There are better baseball people and human beings in front offices everywhere for the Pirates to hire.

Hells Angels?

Maybe Stark and Huntington can join them. They’ll be out of work soon enough.

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The Price for McCutchen

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Pirates GM Neal Huntington is making it clear with his between-the-lines statements that he’s willing to trade Andrew McCutchenThe Sporting News.

Given the Pirates circumstances as a perennial laughingstock and that McCutchen would have to be just as overwhelmed to stay long-term as the Pirates would be to trade him, it makes sense to listen to what other clubs have to say.

McCutchen is not closing in on free agency (it’s not until after the 2015 season) and he’s going to be arbitration-eligible until next year. He’s 25, is not reliant on his speed to make a living and he can play center field.

He’s an MVP-quality talent.

It’s somewhat unprecedented for a young, established position player to be available regardless of the demand.

Most of the huge deals for packages of young players that aren’t closing in on free agency involve pitchers. We saw this with the Athletics’ latest housecleaning in dealing Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez. The Rays are always ready to do business with any player on their roster and the Rockies made a bold move in trading Ubaldo Jimenez last summer.

McCutchen is a franchise cornerstone and exactly the type of player for whom an interested club should be willing to overpay as Huntington implies.

Let’s take a look at some big trades that were made with a lot of young talent exchanged for a young position player to get a gauge on circumstances and boundaries.

1982: Indians trade OF Von Hayes to the Phillies for INF Julio Franco, RHP Jay Baller, 2B Manny Trillo, OF George Vukovich and C Jerry Willard.

Hayes was 24 and saddled with the nickname “5 for 1” after the trade, but turned out to be a very good player for the Phillies. He had power and speed and if he played today, he’d be comparable to McCutchen.

Franco was an excellent hitter and lasted in the big leagues until he was 48.

Hayes’s career was over at age 33 after the Phillies had traded him to the Angels in a trade that brought them…Ruben Amaro Jr.

1990: Padres trade 2B Roberto Alomar and OF Joe Carter to the Blue Jays for 1B Fred McGriff and SS Tony Fernandez.

Alomar was 23 and I don’t think anyone predicted he’d blossom into a Hall of Fame player with power. Two old-school GMs—the Padres’ Joe McIlvaine and the Blue Jays’ Pat Gillick—pulled off this drastic maneuver that worked out better for the Blue Jays, but was productive for the Padres. In retrospect, they would have preferred to keep Alomar, but no one knew what Alomar was.

Veteran general managers got together and cobbled out a major trade that helped both sides.

1992: Brewers trade INF Gary Sheffield and RHP Geoff Kellogg to the Padres for RHP Ricky Bones, OF Matt Mieske and INF Jose Valentin.

Sheffield was miserable in Milwaukee, couldn’t handle the expectations and pressure stemming from being in the big leagues at 19 and the nephew of Dwight Gooden. In later years, Sheffield claimed to have intentionally thrown balls wildly from third base as some form of retribution for perceived slights.

Sound familiar?

The self-destructive petulance was chalked up to youth.

It turned out not to be youth. Gary was just Gary and that’s simply what he did.

From age 19-40, Sheffield imploded and exploded in his subsequent stops (six after Milwaukee and San Diego) and alienated anyone and everyone along the way. He got away with it because he could hit for power and get on base—no other reason.

The Brewers got rid of Sheffield because he was a ticking time bomb.

2007: Rays trade OF Delmon Young, INF Brendan Harris and OF Jason Pridie to the Twins for RHP Matt Garza, SS Jason Bartlett and RHP Eddie Morlan.

Young was a former first pick in the draft, but the new Rays front office wouldn’t have drafted him first had they been in charge and were in the process of clearing out players who didn’t behave appropriately—Young had acted up in the minors and majors resulting in suspensions and confrontations with manager Joe Maddon. It helped the decision to move him that they didn’t value what it was he did because he hit a few homers, didn’t get on base and played poor defense in the outfield.

Garza was a young pitcher with a temper similar to Young’s, but that temper was tolerable to get his power arm.

This was a mutual-interest/need deal and not one to clear salary.

Barring free agency, financial constraints and ancillary factors, players like McCutchen are rarely available.

Is he “available”? Or are the Pirates tossing it out there to see if anyone bites and gives up the house?

Teams should inquire and be serious about getting him.

The Royals have the prospects and the need. With McCutchen in center field flanked by Alex Gordon and Jeff Francoeur, their outfield defense would be superlative and their rebuilding process would be sped up markedly.

The Nationals need a center fielder, have the young talent to deal and are looking to improve quickly; the Braves’ farm system is loaded; and the Mets should accept reality and give the fans something to bank on while getting a marquee youngster.

If teams have to overpay, so be it.

For a player like McCutchen, everyone should contact the Pirates and see whether or not they’re serious about moving him. If they ask for seven players including four who are perceived as “can’t miss”, then they’re not serious; if they ask for four or five, then it’s something for an interested club to pursue because McCutchen is worth it.

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