Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Neal Huntington: Trust the Process

by Bill

The fabulous satirical website The Onion has a pretty hilarious little baseball-related piece up this week: Pirates Mathematically Eliminated From Major League Baseball. I’ll make you click the link to get the actual humor from it, but the idea, of course, is that the Pirates have been so bad for so long -- they’ve all but locked up their 18th consecutive losing season -- that the team’s fifth straight loss on Monday knocked them not only out of contention for the 2010 pennant, but out of the league altogether. Of course, the Pirates as a franchise are still more than 100 games above the .500 mark, but you get the point: the Pirates have been really, hopelessly bad for a long time.

Which has led to a lot of frustration, especially over what is often portrayed in the media as the Pirates' constant cycle of trading players as soon as they become usable major leaguers.

It was over a year ago that I wrote in defense of the Pirates, GM Neal Huntington, and the trades he has made -- while I believe it’s true that they were basically a glorified farm team for the Littlefield and prior eras, I thought Huntington was different, had a plan, would make things better.

The 2010 Pirates have the worst record in the NL and are currently on pace to lose 105 games, six worse than last year. And I stand by everything I said. I don't know enough about how the Pirates are doing in the draft, international scouting, etc., but with those trades that everybody complains about, Huntington has been absolutely on the right track.

Just for fun, let's take a look at all those valuable vets Huntington has traded away (from BBREF's team transactions pages), and how they’ve fared in their post-Piratical lives:

  1. Salomon Torres (since trade: 80 IP, 3.49 ERA/4.22 FIP, 28 saves)
    Torres, starting in his early 30s, emerged from obscurity to excel for four-plus years as mostly a short reliever with the Pirates. He'd slipped to a 5.47 ERA in 52 2/3 innings in 2007 (though his FIP and xFIP were still comfortably within his usual range). Huntington traded him to the Brewers after the 2007 season in return for two very minor pitching prospects, both now out of baseball themselves. Torres turned 36 before the 2008 season started, was thrust into the role of full-time closer and, completely unsurprisingly, performed at his established level. He then somewhat surprisingly retired in November, just before the Brewers were to decide whether to exercise his $3.75 million option. From Capps and Grabow to Dotel and Meeks and Hanrahan, the Pirates haven’t had any trouble, post-Torres, with turning up decent-or-better short relievers.

  2. Damaso Marte (49.1 IP, 6.02 ERA/~5.40 FIP) and Xavier Nady (.254/.311/.421, ~.318 wOBA)
    Once a top prospect with the Padres, Nady (one of four Xaviers in MLB history) was finaly having his first healthy and productive year at age 29, batting .330 (albeit with an out of character .364 BABIP) with a 143 OPS+ in his first 89 games. Marte, then 33, had a stellar 2007 and was having a strong 2008 (3.47 ERA/3.32 FIP in 46 2/3 innings). Both Nady and Marte fell off almost immediately upon being traded to the Yankees, Nady reverting immediately back to his career norms and Marte posting a 5.40 ERA (though his FIP actually dropped). In 2009, things got even worse for both of them (though Marte was great in the playoffs), and more of the same in 2010 (though at least Nady is the Cubs’ problem now).
    Huntington absolutely crushed this one. For a 33 year old one-inning reliever and a guy having a career half-season, Huntington got an extremely young (former?) top prospect in Jose Tabata -- who, right now, looks like a future star -- and three pitchers who have shown at least some aptitude for success in the big leagues (Karstens, Ohlendorf and Daniel McCutchen). There are legitimate superstars traded every year who bring back packages nowhere near as good as that. Not sure if Huntington was looking at advanced stats like FIP and BABIP, knew about Marte and Nady’s pending regression through some other means, or just got lucky, but whatever it was, it was awesome.

  3. Jason Bay(.269.370/.491, ~,375 wOBA)
    Okay, this one stings a little. Considering he was the closest thing the Pirates had to a star and was signed cheaply through 2009 when he was dealt in mid-’08, you’d think Huntington could have gotten more back for him than he got. But it’s not like the Pirates had any hope of either (a) winning in 2009 or (b) bringing him back post-2009, and at the time of the trade, Andy LaRoche, Brandon Moss and Craig Hansen all at least had some promise. Not so much anymore, but the fourth guy coming back to Pittsburgh, pitcher Bryan Morris, is still just 23 and has had a successful 2010 between High-A and AA, so they might yet get something out of the deal. By the next time the Pirates might contend again (hell, maybe even if it’s 2011), I’d rather have Tabata patrolling left field than Bay, who is 31 and has struggled quite a bit in the first year of his twelve-decade deal with the Mets.

  4. Jose Bautista (.246/.355/.502, ~.371 wOBA)
    Bautista had been a replacement-level starter for the Pirates for a couple years, and was disliked by the new management. They find a way to dump him on the Blue Jays, and two seasons later he much more than doubles his previous career high in home runs. If you saw that coming, you deserve a GM job. It also seems unlikely to be repeated.

  5. Ronny Paulino (.269/.325/.391, ~.315 wOBA)
    Paulino had put up a tantalizing ,310/.360/.394 line in '06, but fell off in every way in '07 and alternated being demoted, horrible and angry in '08. He also reportedly plays awful defense. They traded him to the Phillies straight up for a slightly worse backup catcher, Jason Jaramillo. Ryan Doumit, the closest thing the Pirates have to a starting catcher, has been roughly on par with Paulino (.254/.313/.413).

  6. Nate McLouth (.227/.325/.365, ~.302 wOBA).
    This seems to be the one that sent critics over the edge, since McLouth had come out of nowhere into stardom in 2008 but was gone in June 2009. You can sort of understand how some fans and writers would draw the conclusion that the Pirates simply nurture players until they're good enough to play in the majors and then trade them off to save money. Of course, McLouth was merely okay for the rest of 2009 and then fell off a cliff in 2010, and his trade cleared the way for Andrew McCutchen to immediately become the team’s best player. As it turned out, just dumping him was a bonus, and they got some potentially useful future pieces (Gorkys Hernandez and Jeff Locke) besides.

  7. Sean Burnett (66 IP, 3.00 ERA/~3.70 FIP) and Nyjer Morgan (.291/.346/.359, ~.322 wOBA)
    Wash. Burnett is basically equivalent to Joel Hanrahan, the reliever the Nationals sent back in the trade..Morgan was having the better year but was older and had less room to grow than Milledge, and both have been pretty awful in 2010.

  8. Eric Hinske(.249/.331/.482, ~.348 wOBA)
    Hinske, 32, was basically a pinch hitter and was signed to a one-year contract. He’d put up a .373 OBP in limited action for the Pirates in ‘09, but they had no reason to keep him once they determined they weren’t in the race. They didn’t get anything in return, really, and they actually sent the Yankees money to help cover his meager salary (how do the Yankees keep getting other teams to send them money in deals?). But it’s certainly not the kind of thing that cripples a franchise.

  9. Adam LaRoche (.287/.358/.508, ~.380 wOBA)
    LaRoche raked for the Braves in ‘09 after they got him on a quick turnaround second deal with the Red Sox (he’d played just six games with Boston), but in 2010 with the Diamondbacks, he’s been back to being the average-or-slightly-better 1B he’s always been. His departure cleared the way for Garrett Jones -- who’s no better and hardly even younger but much cheaper -- and maybe eventually future star Pedro Alvarez if he can’t stick at third base. The trade basically only brought back organizational filler and salary relief, but it’s hard to argue that they lost anything of value.

  10. Ian Snell(110.2 IP, 5.12 ERA/~5.80 FIP) and Jack Wilson (.240/.275/.310, ~260 wOBA)
    Snell was the Pirates’ opening-day starter in 2008, then was demoted to AAA for part of 2009. The Mariners liked his stuff (as did some of their smarter fans), but he’s never been able to put it together again and has been up and down from AAA with them as well. Wilson was always a glove-first SS; now he’s a glove-only SS (and may or may not have lost a step in that area as well, depending on which metric you prefer). Ronny Cedeno, one of the many pieces the deal brought over from the Mariners, has provided about as much value as the Pirates’ shortstop as Wilson has for the Mariners’. Former top prospect Jeff Clement was the big piece in the deal, but he’s now nearly 27 and still hasn’t given any sign of an ability to hit big-league pitching.

  11. Tom Gorzelanny (138.1 IP, 4.10 ERA/~3.76 FIP) and John Grabow (50.2 IP, 5.33 ERA/~4.90 FIP)
    Gorzelanny is another good-looking young starter who quickly fell out of favor with the Pirates with a couple of ugly years (one bad, one mostly unlucky). He’s been excellent in 2010. Grabow was a solid but 30 year old and expendable relief pitcher. He was good in 25 innings for the Cubs in 2009 and bad in 25 innings for the Cubs so far in 2010, but almost the only difference is his home run rate (he’s given up 5 this year and one last), which is probably fluky on both ends.
    We’ve finally hit one I just don’t understand. Gorzellany was just 27 when the trade was made and can’t become a free agent until 2014 (the Cubs avoided arbitration by signing him to a 1-year, $800,000 contract for 2010). They knew he had (at least past tense) the ability to succeed in the majors. I just don’t see a reason to give up a guy like that at basically the low point of his value (and the package they got for him and Grabow isn’t even worth talking about).
    I guess they were frustrated with Gorzelanny and felt he needed a change of scenery, but you don’t just do that out of the kindness of your heart. Give him a change of scenery if you can actually get something of value for him. Gorzelanny is a guy who might have righted the ship and hung around to help the next Pirates contender.
It’s far too early to judge the trades Huntington has made this year -- dealing away D.J. Carrasco, Ryan Church, Bobby Crosby, Octavio Dotel, and Javier Lopez -- but I think it’s safe to say that none of those names are going to show up any time soon as key pieces of a playoff team.

All in all, aside from the Gorzelanny puzzler, I don’t see a single trade that has hurt or is likely to hurt the Pirates' competitive chances. Sure, losing Bay cost them a win or two in ‘08 and three or so in ‘09...two years in which they finished close to thirty games back of first place. Jose Bautista certainly wouldn’t make them a contender this year, and he’s not likely to repeat his success in 2011 or ‘12 or ‘13 when the Pirates could be ready to make a run. All the others failed immediately upon leaving the team and/or were almost immediately replaced by a younger player who provided the same or nearly the same production.

The bottom line is this: you can poke fun at the Pirates’ way of doing things all you like, but I’d much rather have Tabata, McCutchen, Jones, Alvarez, Milledge and even Cedeno getting experience and taking up those spots than Bay, McLouth, LaRoche, Nady, Hinske and Wilson. And I’d much rather be the Pirates for the next five years than, say, the Royals, Orioles or Astros.


Mark said...

Interesting that you would choose to lump the Royals in with teams that you would rather not be when there system is so highly regarded.

Bill said...

Highly regarded by whom? They have some decent prospects, but they're run by a buttclown from Mars. They keep all that talent in the minors (and sometimes make it switch positions) while they sign mediocre veterans for absolutely no reason. The Royals will always be at hte very bottom of my want-to-be list as long as Dayton Moore is around.

The Hammer said...

Sean Burnett and Joel Hanrahan have nothing in common except they are pitchers. Hanrahan has been one of the most dominating relievers in baseball and has the potential to be an elite closer. Milledge is clearly better than Morgan, and younger, but as you said neither has been particularly good.

Bill said...

Depends on what you're looking at, I suppose. By FIP, 2.99 in 49 innings is close enough to 3.19 in 41 innings that I'm comfortable saying they've been of pretty similar value.

David said...

I was with you all the way through the post, until you said you'd rather be the Pirates than the Royals. I have to disagree with you there. The Royals' farm system is far more exciting to me than the Pirates'.

Bill said...

As I said above, nothing else about the Royals matters to me at all; as long as Dayton Moore sits at the top, they're doomed. But thanks for the comment!

Brian said...

Forgot about Freddy Sanchez for Tim Alderson, who was highly regarded at the time, but has had a bad 2010.