If the departure of Nate McLouth warranted a candlelight vigil in the Pirates clubhouse, you have to wonder how many suicide notes are being written over there in Pittsburgh now that Adam LaRoche, Jack Wilson, Ian Snell, and Freddy Sanchez have all been traded over the past week (not to mention Nyjer Morgan this past month).
Those five players – including McLouth – had been the most recognizable faces of the franchise for a few years now and following their departure, I’d bet that 90% of baseball fans can no longer name you more than three guys on their big league roster. On the surface, this sounds like a terrible setback for a team that has not had a winning season since 1992. But there’s a big difference between getting worse and rebuilding, and GM Neal Huntington appears to have made the decisions necessary to achieve the latter of the two.
Let’s discuss these deals individually:
July 23 – Adam LaRoche traded to Red Sox for Argenis Diaz and Hunter Strickland
The elder LaRoche came to Pittsburgh prior to the start of the 2007 season and immediately became one of the team’s most reliable offensive players. But once you took a step back and compared him to the rest of the regular first basemen around the league, you could see that his overall skillset was below average at the position.
Among the 24 first basemen who have made at least 1000 plate appearances since the beginning of the 2007 season, LaRoche’s adjusted OPS of 113 is 14th, his SLG of .470 is 16th, and his OBP of .339 is 21st. These are numbers that a team could live with if the defense was superb, but this was not the case either. In his time in Pittsburgh (as well as in his entire career), his Ultimate Zone Rating has been in the negatives, meaning that his glove was more likely to hurt you than help you win ballgames.
LaRoche is a free agent at the end of the year and offering a player of his skillset and age (turning 30 in November) a contract extension would have been foolish. And as of this writing, there is no guarantee that a player with his numbers would have garnered the Bucs with any compensatory draft picks. Not only that, there was the fear that he would have accepted arbitration had the franchise gone that route. Once they made the decision that Adam LaRoche was not the player they wanted to play first base in 2010, management did the most sensible thing and traded him away in a salary dump, saving the franchise $3 million in salary. And Pirates fans would be better off considering this trade as just that – a salary dump – because the two minor leaguers they received aren’t exactly “prospects”.
Argenis Diaz is a 22 year-old shortstop who has never hit at the professional level. His power is nonexistent, doesn’t make much contact and doesn’t walk nearly enough to be an offensive asset. He is, reportedly, quite a good defensive player, but you usually have to have some ability to hit to make it to the bigs even as a defensive replacement. Hunter Strickland’s prospect status isn’t much better. His fastball is average at best and relies solely on control and location to get guys out. And combined with his numbers, his ceiling looks to be as a middle reliever.
Out of the three trades over the past week, this one is my least favorite from the Pirates’ perspective, but I at least still understand why they pulled the trigger. If the choice was between nothing and saving $3 million, I would have taken the $3 million too.
July 29th – Jack Wilson and Ian Snell traded to Mariners for package of prospects including Jeff Clement plus Ronny Cedeno
In retrospect, the writing was on the wall for both shortstop Wilson and double-play partner Freddy Sanchez when both players were offered contract extensions that seemed designed to be rejected. And once they predictably were, the Pirates moved ahead by trading them both in separate deals.
Wilson has always been a good defensive player, but since the start of the 2008 season, he truly has been among the best in the game with the glove – that is, when he’s been healthy enough to play. He hasn’t started in more than 131 games since 2005 and started only 80 just last year. He has never been able to do all that much offensively but he has hit enough for his superb defense to be worthwhile.
Pitcher Ian Snell is a curious case. As a 25-year old in 2007, Snell posted fine numbers – ERA of 3.76 with 7.66 K/9IP and 2.94 BB/9IP – and looked to be a part of the solution to bring competitive baseball back to Pittsburgh. For one reason or other, Snell has not been the same since. In the 46 starts he made in 2008-present, what control he had left him, and he posted an ERA of 5.40. The organization sent him down to AAA in late June and he hasn’t been back since. But here’s the odd part – Snell asked for the demotion himself, citing the negativity he faced among bloggers, writers, and fans. And sure enough, he has been pitching brilliantly in AAA (well, it’s AAA, but the guy has been locking them down). Reports even came out from the Associated Press a couple of weeks ago that claimed Snell did not want to be recalled to Pittsburgh at all (this was later denied in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). So really, this was another case where management had to trade him away.
So essentially, Huntington had very little leverage here. He had a SS who was probably insulted by the contract offer and a pitcher who never wanted to wear a Pirates jersey ever again because the limelight of Pittsburgh was too much to handle. So one has to wonder, how did the Pirates get such a solid package from Seattle?
You may heard about Jeff Clement already. Not many catching prospects could put up a line of .275/.370/.497 in AAA like he did in 2007. Problem was, the guy couldn’t catch very well. And because the Mariners preferred to play aging vets like Jose Vidro, Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Sweeney at the DH spot, Clement never got a chance to learn at the big league level. Despite being blocked for so long, Clement is still only 25 and his peak years are ahead of him. I expect that he’ll be used as a first baseman or traded to another club sometime soon.
But what I really liked about this deal for the Pirates is the trio of pitchers they’re receiving. Chances are, none of the three – Benjamin Pribanic, Brett Lorin, and Nathan Adcock – will be stars. Hell, none of them may make the Majors. But these are the types of deals that a barren system like Pittsburgh’s absolutely needs. One star pitcher was not going to save the franchise alone. But one star pitcher surrounded by other reliable arms? Now you’re talking. So Huntington was able to start working towards that goal by opting for quantity over quality.
Ian Snell may still turn out to be a good pitcher (I wouldn’t bet on it) but it was never going to happen as a Pirate. And at 31 years old, Jack Wilson’s defense wasn’t going to remain at a high level for much longer. In exchange, the Pirates get a promising bat, three young arms plus a half-way decent defensive utility guy in Ronny Cedeno. That ain’t bad.
June 29th – Freddy Sanchez to San Francisco for Tim Alderson
This one was another head scratcher. Faced with the same exact situation as he had with Jack Wilson, Neal Huntington had to trade Sanchez. So what does he do? Oh, merely goes out and gets Alderson, an A-level pitching prospect. Huh?
This is no knock on Sanchez, who is having a fine offensive year to go along with his above average defense. But this seems a bit crazy to me. Tim Alderson is a 20 year-old who, despite the young age, doesn’t seem out of place pitching in AA. He’s shown great control and accuracy for his age and you’d expect his strikeout numbers to rise as he gets older.
I understand that the Giants are in the thick of the Wild Card hunt, and that second base had been a bit of a sore spot for them all season. But speaking realistically, from here on out, Sanchez may be a one-win upgrade over Juan Uribe. Of course, that one win could prove pivotal. But then again, it may not. There’s also the risk that Sanchez’s current .343 BABiP is coming down (he should be around .325-.326). And assuming that the Giants pick up his 2010 option, his salary goes up to $8 million next year. With all this, giving up your second best pitching prospect seems to be a losing proposition for San Francisco.
(UPDATE) July 30th – John Grabow and Tom Gorzelanny to Cubs for Kevin Hart, Jose Ascanio, and Josh Harrison
Holy jeebus, does Huntington have the ability to split himself up into four people? Because the man is wheeling and dealing at an incredible rate. I can’t keep up, man! S0 instead of going back and changing the earlier paragraphs, I’m just sticking this here. Call me lazy. Call me inventive.
Like Ian Snell, Gorzelanny looked more to be a part of the solution than a problem back in 2007. In over 200 innings, he had a 3.88 ERA with a shade under two strikeouts for every walk. For a 24 year-old lefty, that’s really not too shabby. But unfortunately, he also went the way of Snell by crashing in a disastrous 2008 season and is yet to recover, despite posting strong numbers in AAA. The one difference here between Gorzelanny and Snell is that it wasn’t so clear that the former couldn’t return to form as a Pirate. So I was a bit surprised that they cut the cord.
John Grabow’s a lefty who actually doesn’t have much of a split. Over his career, lefties have had a line of .270/.332/.391 while righties sport a similar .254/.346/.397. So the guy’s not a LOOGY. At 30 years old, Grabow is who he is – a fairly useful reliever.
The return for these two pitchers is also pretty strong. Hart has seen 60 1/3 innings in his young big league career and he’ll have to stop walking so many batters if he wants to see much more. But he’s got the ability to miss enough bats that makes him a little more interesting. A similar case could be made for Ascanio so with those two righties, the Pirates are getting your typical young power arms. Harrison is a 22 year-old third baseman who makes good contact. He’ll need to learn how to take a walk to be an effective player, but his power should come as he grows older. This, like the Snell/Wilson deal, is about quantity over quality. And like I said earlier, for a depleted farm system like Pittsburgh’s, this is a very good thing. However, I still wonder if Gorzelanny, who is still only 27 years old, wasn’t the best arm among those in this trade. But I suppose if the Pirates don’t think they can contend within the next three years, even having a talented guy like Gorzelanny would have been a moot point.
Seeing as none of these deals brought in veteran talent, the message is clear – the Pirates have given up on trying to win anything in the immediate future. Now, you may be thinking that this was the obvious thing to do, and you’d be right. But time and again, for one reason or other, we continue to see teams sign veterans to large contracts when they’re nowhere near contention. So when we see teams do the right thing, no matter how obvious or painful, we ought to give credit where credit is due. Neal Huntington has done well here, and he’s still got 16 hours left before the deadline.