Pirate’s Leadership Sounds Different

The Pirates went through a nearly complete upheaval of the management team after the 2019 season as everyone knows, and they continued that process last week as Ben Cherington cut ties with many front office employees that were extended prior to the ousting of Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly.

Because Bob Nutting remains the Owner, believing real change is here has become impossible for many. Worsening the situation, this new management team has been handed an untouched frontier as their first assignment. We may never know what the plan was for 2020 fully. Did they plan to move Chris Archer, Adam Frazier, Josh Bell, Keone Kela? The chances of any of those happening under these circumstances range from no to maybe to hell no to impossible.

So, I ask myself, what could this leadership group do to show they are different rather than just sound like it? Not to placate the fans, that’s never a way for a GM to operate, but to show a real willingness to operate in a different way.

Here are some things that, for me, would show the kind of willingness to invest and put a foot down, even in these times.

  1. Sign Josh Bell to an Extension – Overpay if you must, but get it done. I hear frequently that Josh isn’t that good in reality and the Pirates should definitely move him for prospects. I find that more as a symptom of how this team has been run than reality. There are exactly 29 other teams, especially with the DH being universal, who would love to have Josh on their roster. To assume the Pirates should be the one who think he’s more valuable as a trade chip is just so Buccos. Not to mention, signing him to an extension doesn’t exactly prevent his movement later, but it would show the days of automatically playing your way out of town because you picked a certain super-agent are at least less certain. Players and people like Josh don’t come along every day, we should stop trying to make losing them ok by diminishing the talent level of them when they do here in Pittsburgh and more so we should expect that keeping them on occasion occurs more than once every three decades.
  2. Sign a Free Agent Who Was Actually Coveted- The Pirates have not signed a free agent anyone else drove the bidding up on since Russell Martin. Part of that is certainly the economics of baseball, part of it is of course the way Bob Nutting has run this club. Perpetually signing “Diamond in the Rough” type free agents or those who are past their prime but might be ok again works on occasion. Melky Cabrerra comes to mind, Francisco Liriano last year as well, but is it too much to ask that they fill a hole with more than a bucket of question marks? Catcher was the most obvious hole this season and sure the two they signed could very well out perform their track record, but there were several options who would have cost no more than 5 or 6 million who would have provided something the guys they got can’t, an absolute upgrade. I’m not advocating this club try to truly be in on the monster contract guys, but a 15-million-dollar starter could really change the entire dynamic and still leave them near the bottom with payroll. The Bucs should know well how easy moving a pitcher like that can be as well should they not be happy.
  3. Trust Developed Players- Here is a great for instance, if the Pirates believe Ke’Bryan Hayes has learned all minor league ball can teach him, he’s either not good enough or he’s ready. Same with Will Craig. Get them involved and let them continue to develop. What I’m suggesting here is not to push all your chips into the middle and lift your hands, its more to do what the Cubs have done with players like Ian Happ, Javier Baez, and Kyle Schwarber. None of them were polished diamonds when they came up, but they allowed them to find a role and contribute rather than waiting for the perfect storm of need and service time to line up. It’s better to find out what you have than it is to hold them in some kind of prospect purgatory where they serve to do little more than win MiLB championships. Far too often the Pirates find themselves in a situation where they create a do or die situation with prospects. Holding them in the minors until they’re hand is forced. Another side effect, say Josh Bell gets injured and the Bucs need a first baseman, would Will Craig be the first guy on the scene? Probably not. Moran or Osuna would get a shot first and I couldn’t even argue with it, because organizationally they have never allowed Craig to really take a crack at the next level, of course I trust the two guys who have been here more. That’s what the Buccos failure to launch culture has spawned.

None of these things make the Pirates a contender today. In fact, nothing short of the 60-game schedule will do that this season. But the real change we hoped Cherington would bring is simply not going to show itself until they actually do something different. Ben is not responsible for 99% of the players on this club or in the system, so the talent level is therefore also not his fault. Failing to make changes and do something different as we move into next season will be, I trust what he says and believe him when he says he has the tools at his disposal. I trust because he’s had no real clear-cut opportunity as of yet. Once he has a real chance, my trust switches to expectation, here’s hoping he meets it.

What a Difference a Year Makes

Way back when, somewhere around March in 2019, long before we ever heard about COVID-19 or the extreme effects it would have on every facet of our daily lives, The Pittsburgh Pirates Starting Rotation was supposed to be the strength of the club. Yup, all those guys had pedigree and potential, ok, maybe you had big questions about the fifth starter, or you firmly believed Chris Archer would stink, did stink and always will stink.

Regardless, the Pirates Rotation was favorably seen by most national pundits and the few local guys who can still bring themselves to utter a nice word about the club felt it too. For the first few weeks it looked like they were right too, Archer was still not getting deep into games, but he was getting outs and holding his own. Joe looked strong and started mixing his pitches in more regularly. Jamo was the ace we wanted, even if out of all of them his results were the most up and down. Williams looked like he recovered from his disastrous finish to 2018 and even Lyles was a pleasant surprise, far outplaying his 1-year deal.

Then the wheels started falling off. Archer started showing he couldn’t keep the ball in the park and arguments over pitching philosophy were hard to ignore. Joe continued to pitch well, but still fell prey to that occasional blow up inning. He’d give up four runs in the first and shut out the opponents for six innings after that. Jamo of course was bitten by injury again, and yes, it was the bad one. Williams himself was injured and lost the mojo he built up. Lyles was still dealing but after all the rest, Jordan being the most consistent in the rotation just couldn’t do.

Mitch Keller stepped in after the Pirates inexplicably tried an unstretched Brault and Kingham mix mash, culminating in Kingham being DFA’d and Brault after being given more chances than a 60-year-old in the lottery line finally found his footing and stretched out. Chris Stratton was purchased from the Angels for three packs of Topps and some coupons to In and Out, came in, pitched ok, got hurt, gone goes stop gap help. Keller pitched exactly how you’d expect a rookie to perform. His stuff played but he didn’t always trust it. So, he would get blown up in an inning and toss three shutout innings after it. Learning to pitch at the MLB level after jumping from AAA has been a Pirate problem for as long as I can remember. Gerrit Cole is the only one I can think of who didn’t fall victim to the system and It’s fair to say he’s a little special.

While all this shrapnel was flying around, the Pirates bats came to life and players we didn’t even see coming took off. Bryan Reynolds arrived and emerged almost at the same time. Starting 2019 Reynolds was easily 5th or 6th on the outfield depth chart. There was Marte of course, an injured Gregory Polanco who was working his way back into the lineup (so we thought), Melky Cabrerra who nobody even gave a real chance to make the club, Jason Martin who himself had no real track record and was coming off an injury that took away from his number one tool, speed. Jose Osuna, Kevin Kramer, Adam Frazier hell you could even toss Pablo Reyes in there.

Kevin Newman rose from the ashes of a complete dumpster fire September in 2018 to win back his job as starting Short Stop and compete all year for rookie of the year. Jung Ho Kang was, well awful, and after blasting homeruns into the Bradenton wind all Spring long. He literally only hit homeruns. It was like watching Craig play MLB 2020 The Show.

Josh Bell was being mentioned with some of the games very best. Not just the current day guys like Trout or Story, no he was drawing comparisons to Arron or Gerhig. The offense stole the show and picked up the awful pitching.

Everything started rocking the same shaky path after the All-Star break though and the lack of depth smacked every hope of getting back on track right in the face.

Here we are, entering 2020 and where do we sit?

The rotation toss in this season is Derek Holland instead of Lyles. Taillon is still hurt. Archer is hurt. Brault was hurt. Williams got touched up in a very similar fashion early this Spring 1.0. Keller looked like he has gotten the yips under control, but he looked good last Spring too.

Bottom line, nobody expects this staff to carry the team, period. The offense however, yeah, they have some expectation. People already have Reynolds as a lock to improve on an already impressive Rookie Season. Bell is the heart of this lineup, whether a DH or First Baseman. Newman is penciled in as the leadoff guy, Frazier is a gold glove winning, 280 with his eyes closed hitting lock in the lineup. The Pirates expect Polanco to return healthy and get back to what he started in 2018 before he took a Roller Derby looking slide into second.

The offense really could be quite good. As with any season there are ifs, but in a 60-game season, there are a few more. For instance, If Bell gets off to a start resembling his early season in 2019 and Reynolds just holds serve, that’s a 3-4 punch not many teams will get past undamaged. If Newman can continue to make stats nerds wet the bed because he’s clearly supposed to suck and Frazier just does what he does, 1-4 of that lineups is quite formidable. Polanco is a wild card, but the potential is still there. Moran/Hayes/Rodriguez/Osuna get you to a pretty nice looking 1-6. Stallings, who probably set his career highs for average moving forward last season is a nice seven-hole anchor and then you have Herredia or Dyson. Hey, that’s not bad.

So here we sit, 2020 is finally here and we again have one side of the ball with all the potential while the other looks like a liability. A hot offense or pitching staff for a month in a two-month long season could be enough to get you there.

Do I think it will happen? No, if I’m honest, I just don’t think they have the pitching to get it done. But again, in two months, imagine the Cubs have two pitchers go down with hamstring pulls. That’s 2 weeks give or take and at least a week to get back into shape. Every injury to a pitcher will affect at least 1/3 of the season. Every team knows this season hinges on health and depth. Who has the most? In 2019 it certainly wasn’t the Pirates, in 2020, the depth pitching might be an even bigger factor, for every team.

Five Thoughts at Five

Baseball, in the functional business sense is back today. It’s nice to see all the folks out there including Craig and I who were locked in a holding pattern finally able to talk baseball.

  1. Free Agent Dreams Will Remain Fantasy – The welcome return of wishful thinking Pirates Fans started shining bright as soon as the players agreed to report to camps. But much like the late-great Burgess Meredith once said in Grumpy Old Men, “You can wish in one hand and crap in the other”, yup, you guessed it, and you know which will fill first. Thing is, I’m not even mad about it, I’d much prefer they avoid false hope this year and face their issues head on.
  2. Pitching Is, Was, and Will Be the Biggest Issue – The pitching staff, at least the starters, can’t compete long term. There is still reason for the type of quirky optimism a 60 game schedule provides, but make no mistake, they need help. More help than they could possibly get from a few unsigned free agents or costly trades. No, they need time. Time for the few pieces of the answer already here to meet up with what is coming into the system.
  3. Bob Nutting’s Wallet – Is not the reason for the restructuring layoffs that just came out today. DK Pittsburgh Sports, Jason Mackey have both reported the intention of Cherington to restructure some of these areas. Specifically some of those who had just re-upped their contracts prior to the Huntington firing. If you want to blame Nutting for something here, hammer him for taking his sweet time deciding to move on from Huntington. Also, paying them through the end of October means the savings would be negligible anyway.
  4. I’m Happy for Altoona – Altoona deserved to be named the Hub city for the Pirates reserve player pool. I hope it helps them recover some of what they lost during the pandemic. The stadium is really a little gem and I think everyone will be comfortable spending some time there.
  5. Expanded Playoffs – I’m glad the players union said they were still willing to discuss expanded playoffs, but it would be best to have that decided long before the first pitch. If you have a team that you think is borderline to make the wildcard if you add a piece, the expansion could force some player movement. Something I don’t feel is going to be too prevalent without it.

As always, catch up with me on Twitter or Facebook, let me know your thoughts.

Friday Focus – The Rotation is Still Spinning

In the past few months so much has changed in our world it has become nearly impossible to keep track. Even the Pirate’s rotation has changed as Chris Archer found himself on the IL and the dominos fall from there.

Resist the urge to pretend Archer’s injury somehow makes the Pirates stronger. You may not like his pedigree but at least he has some. One thing missing from this rotation is a meaningful track record.

As Sprint 1.0 opened (I swear we’ll get past this 1.0, 2.0 stuff at some point) the Buccos rotation looked something like this.
Chris Archer
Joe Musgrove
Mitch Keller
Trevor Williams
Steven Brault
Alternates included: Derek Holland, J.T. Brubaker, Chad Kuhl

Obviously, Archer leaves the list and one of those alternates moves up. Just as obviously, this is not a starting rotation for a playoff club. I don’t think it’s as bad as many project but let’s go through what we actually know about each of these players.

Joe Musgrove – A nice 5 pitch mix and a natural leader, Joe needs to lean more heavily on his curveball this season to take a real leap forward, but he is someone that could find a home in most starting rotations, although in Pittsburgh he will need to be a number one. Which means he is destined to underwhelm.
Mitch Keller – Who knows honestly? Mitch could take a big step forward and still only win 10 games in a regular season. He has all the metrics to say success will come, but unfortunately, he has lost 2/3 of the season with which to develop. Bottom line, you’d love to be able to have him fill the fifth starter role, but he falls higher in the pecking order here.
Trevor Williams – Nothing flashy with Trevor, just a decent pitcher. He thrives on pinpoint control and when he doesn’t have it, well he also doesn’t thrive. In-fact he’s downright bad. We’ve seen two impeccable half seasons from Trevor and in a shortened season such as this, that sure could make a difference.
Steven Brault – A lefty. That’s right a lefty starter for the Pirates not named Liriano. He is all about his fastball and ability to throw it anywhere. Last year the Pirates actually allowed him to throw nothing but fastballs for the first 60 pitches of a very successful start. That is not a recipe for success though and in order to take another step, Brault must incorporate at least his slider. Hitters are too smart and his fastball is nowhere near special enough to live and die with it, even out of the pen.
Derek Holland – The Dutch Oven is a journeyman pitcher who has experienced success. He’s a lefty which is a good thing, but he’s been relegated to the bullpen in recent stints elsewhere. He came here with a great attitude that he would fill in wherever needed but if he makes the rotation it will be due to the Archer injury and had we started on time Brault’s injury would be the cause.
JT Brubaker – Injury has hampered his progression. It could be argued he was ahead of Keller prior to his misfortune. JT is a dark horse for a rotation spot, but not forever, his talent is real.
Chad Kuhl – Chad is arguably the best option for number five. He has some good work under his belt and electric stuff. His biggest obstacle was getting left-handed batters to stop lighting him up like a downtown Christmas tree, and prior to his injury was doing exactly that.

OK, all that and we still have more questions and what ifs than is healthy. So of course, the fan base reaches for the free agent market.

Andrew Cashner, Jason Vargas, and Arron Sanchez highlight the list. If any of them were signed they would without question jump right in to the starting five.

Do they make a difference though? Say Cashner signs here, he is healthy and at least what he was last season. He starts 12 games out of the 60 on the slate and wins 6. Now, that’s 10% of the games right there in the win column, so, maybe it’s worth it.

The risk is negligible if we’re honest, it won’t take much as long as he’ll take a one-year deal, and everyone keeps telling me we could just trade him at the deadline anyhow. Well, as I just illustrated earlier in the week, that might not be as easy on August 31st. Unlike the players you may want to move that are already here, signing someone just to move them in less than a month seems pretty silly. And if you don’t realistically think he’s enough to win, yeah you guessed it, silly.

On to the trade market, and while I won’t be listing a wish list of partners, I’ll say this, anyone who would move a serviceable starting pitcher at this point is probably in the same boat as the Bucs and would want prospects. Amassing prospects is kinda our thing right now, know what I’m sayin’? Of course, the high payroll teams could look to move some unwanted salary, but in order for it to help the Pirates they’d have to still have some gas. AJ Burnett’s don’t grow on trees ya know. The bottom line, I’m not sure this 60-game sprint is worth changing the path Cherington has started down. I wouldn’t be mad if they went out and patched the hole, but I don’t expect them to look outside the roster for an answer, and maybe that’s the right play here.

Roster Construction: Thoughtful Planning Versus Reckless Abandon

As soon as the announcement was made on Tuesday evening that players had agreed to report to Spring Training 2.0 on July 1st the brains of Major League Baseball fans and media members’ alike immediately went into overdrive. With new rules, health and safety protocols, scheduling, an end to the MLB transaction freeze and impending decisions pertaining to roster construction swirling around, it was extremely difficult to focus. Feelings concerning the new rule of a runner starting on second base in extra innings, ideas about who could and should be the designated hitter for the Pittsburgh Pirates, plans for potential lineups and how to best utilize our budding prospects leapt from the minds of both experts and amateurs alike. It was a virtual overload of information that had been trapped inside of all us since the baseball world was put on hold some three months ago.

I ,myself, was not immune to this cascade of emotions and ideas. Jumping on to Twitter and Facebook to give my opinions as to the best course of action for the 2020 Pittsburgh Pirates in the sprint to 60 and of course my disdain for giving a team a runner they hadn’t earned in an attempt to make the game not last as long. However, after reading a few articles, blogs and tweets I began to wonder how many of these ideas being presented were relevant or realistic, even in a season where pretty much nothing else makes total sense. Sure it would be nice to add a power hitter into the mix through free agency or use one of our own from within the organization, who might just be on the 40-Man. It would also be cool to see some of the young stars get their chance on the big stage to prove themselves as part of the team’s future. Just move this guy here, make room for this other guy here and play this guy there; the world is your oyster. But is it really? I tend to think it is not and that we got lost in playing GM on MLB The Show 20, where moves can be made without consequences and our fantasies can run wild. Hell, I even made it AAA in the Orioles organization as a 41 year old switching hitting catcher, but this isn’t reality.

The reality of the situation is that Pittsburgh Pirates General Manager Ben Cherington and crew assembled a group of players prior to the shutdown that would be fighting for a spot on the 26-man roster and many of those same players still remain. Now I know there will be an initial expansion to 30 players (added mostly to allow for more pitchers) for the first two weeks of the season, contracted to 28 for two weeks; before finally landing back on 26 approximately half way through the season. Add in the reserve list (up to 40) and player pool (beyond 40) and the total number of players available to the Pirates grows to as many as 60. However, not all of these are as interchangeable as some would have you believe. A player can’t just be plucked from the player pool and placed in on the 26-man roster at will; without a corresponding move and the same goes for those on the reserve list, as it has always been. But what about the 3 man “taxi squad” for away games? These squads will be composed of at least one Catcher and two other players to accompany the active roster members on the road in case of injury or illness and will be used as regular call ups, as has been the case in previous years.

Now I realize that many roster adjustments will have to be made prior to the beginning of the season and even sooner in the case of presenting Major League Baseball with their 60-man rosters for big league spring training by 3PM EST on Sunday. However, the statements that Derek Shelton made on Wednesday as it pertained to roster construction made me think I was at least on the right path. For those of you that may have missed it, Jason Mackey from the PG tweeted it out to the world following Shelton’s interview.

As far as the DH is concerned many familiar, and somewhat obvious names were listed in Bell, Polanco, Osuna and Moran. Added to that group were the unlikely duo of Riddle and Evans. This may be shocking to many, but to me it makes total sense. He named two guys that provide position flexibility due to their roles as utility men. I could also see Erik Gonzalez filling in for the same reason. So why no Will Craig, Oneil Cruz, Cole Tucker or Ke’Bryan Hayes? (Names I have seen mentioned by many.) Because they provide limited position flexibility. When you going on a road trip with a 26 to 30 man roster and only have 3 “taxi-squad” members to take with you, it is imperative to have guys that can play multiple positions and play them well or at the very least at a serviceable level.

I am not trying to burst anyone’s bubble with these revelations. I just want everyone to be prepared for the possibility that your idea of seeing Hayes and Tucker and one side of the infield, while sliding Newman over to second or having Craig out there manning first base because Bell is the DH may be as unrealistic as when the season was scheduled to begin at the end of March. This season is going to get weird, there is no doubt about that. However, some of same rules still apply and the Pirates will not be able to shuffle the deck to your liking.

Now, What About the MiLB Players?

The wake of the MLB season finally coming into sight instantly brings to the surface questions that have been there all along but now take center stage. It’s one thing to figure out how all the MLB clubs can get back to work, its another thing entirely to develop a way to continue to develop the members of every player not part of the 60-man squads.

Rumblings of preliminary plans is about all we’ve gotten to see or hear. Most fans probably leave it right there in reality, MLB is back begins and ends the discussion, in Pittsburgh though, let’s just say development is kinda important.

We have heard some pretty good ideas though. One is an extended Arizona Fall League where each team would supply a full squad. I like the sound of that but don’t feel it would entirely solve the issue. Expanded instructional leagues could help pick up the pieces but nothing is solid yet.

One thing I want above all is for the league to develop the plan with an eye toward making sure nobody in the system feels like this has been a total loss year. In other words, if Travis Swaggerty was on track to arrive in 2023, let’s make sure when all is said and done, none of our solutions move that target.

There is so much to think about. Even if safety and health were not an issue, MLB will be occupying a large percentage of players for the reserve pool so you can’t just pop up and have a regular AAA season anyway. Once you start shuffling the cards to build that pool you would be forced to place players at different levels together. So, competition and development need to be viewed through an entirely untested and unproven way.

We are just starting to get a view of how some clubs will construct that reserve roster and the philosophies are all over the place. Some teams like the Rangers seem inclined to put top prospects who are seemingly a year or two away from making the show on their reserve squad. The Pirates look poised to formulate theirs from much of what we saw in Spring Training 1.0.

Maybe laying out the objectives would help, let’s try it.
1. Provide a place for all MiLB players to continue development and continue their clock
2. Pay all MiLB players at least on a pro-rated bases like their MLB counterparts
3. Keep MiLB players as safe as the MLB players will be

OK, that all sounds good on the surface, right? Some leagues are set up for safety already. The Appalachian league for instance is already a tight geographic area for travel. Maybe its as simple as allowing some of these to have expanded rosters and absorb a couple levels like Low and High A players together. Hey, Rob doesn’t think we need Low A anyhow so perhaps this is an opportunity to show the warts in that thinking.

Perhaps a partnership with the Dominican Summer League could be an option where draft picks and free agent signees could be placed to receive low level instruction. Only issue I see with that is the amount of college players selected in the draft this year, they may be too far along for that to be a blanket solution.

The point of all this is really to illustrate, this isn’t an easy situation. I’d rather them take time and think through all of it, than to see them attempt to placate this group of players with a half-hearted and poorly thought out plan. Planning will ultimately create the best situation for everyone involved and getting it right is far more important than getting it fast. Patience on this issue is key.

The August 31st Trade Deadline

The agreement in principal between MLB and MLBPA yesterday on a safety package for restarting brought plenty of news, poison pills and interesting changes to the game, today we’re going to focus on the trade deadline and what it could mean for our Pittsburgh Pirates.

I’ll start at the beginning; I’ve felt a bit queasy approaching deadline deal discussion before yesterday as we didn’t even know they would have one prior. Now that we do, we can start to make some observations and projections.

By this deadline the Pirates would be roughly 30-34 games into their 60-game schedule. The list of faces available has changed a bit, obviously Chris Archer is off the table due to his injury. The way I see it, the top candidates are Dyson, Kela, Frazier, and Holland.

Now after playing a little over half their games, jokes aside, reality is almost every team in the league could very well feel within striking distance at this point. I say jokes aside mainly to satisfy the folks who jumped on last night to be the first to predict the Bucs would go 0-60. Let’s say the Pirates win 15-15, a pedestrian .500, they would very much so find themselves in the thick of things.

Part of me says, don’t be fooled Mr. Cherington, stick with the plan and move who you like. Another part of me wonders what it will do to the rental value of players like Dyson, Kela and Holland. As I just mentioned, there won’t be enough time for many teams to pull away or fall too awfully behind so the opportunity should be there, but how much will teams pay for 25-30 games of service? Certainly not as much as in previous years.

Essentially, if you expected Kela to fetch a nice prospect at the deadline, I wonder how this changes that. Again, there could very well be more competition for a pitcher like him, but I can’t imagine that translates to increased compensation. I mean, we’re talking about maybe 20 games of work, if they use him like a work horse.

Another angle to all this that we’ll watch play out in the coming days is the players who will opt out due to vulnerabilities at home. On the surface these situations make total sense, having a pregnant wife at home or someone with a compromised immune system, but I think there is enough room there that it could be hard to disprove any player’s individual concern.

This could create holes on clubs nobody saw coming which would obviously open doors of need across the league. On the other hand, if I’m a player who feels they might be a candidate for being moved, I might want to just sit this out. Again, I’m not saying everyone that chooses to sit out is taking advantage or being shady, just pointing out the threshold for who feels safe is going to be tough to prove. Forcing some kind of proof is a grievance waiting to happen.

Another way to look at this is to ignore the deadline all together and head into the season planning to move your intended targets as soon as the roster freeze is lifted. For instance, one question I have is do these guys have to quarantine for a period of time before moving? This was part of why I wondered if they would have a trade deadline at all this season. I mean if pitchers can’t lick their fingers it would seem to me that player movement might have some issues.

The DH in the NL will immediately start every club in the league with a hole they didn’t have before. That could mean a market opens for bench bats or players previously thought of as defensive liabilities could find a landing spot. Colin Moran is instantly more attractive for instance, in fact he’s probably more attractive right here too.

The Archer injury looms large too, think of him what you will, but he was going to head into this season expected to be a big contributor. Do the Bucs look to take advantage of that low payroll to grab an unsigned free agent or make a move to fill the void? To me, an August 31 deadline moves any starting pitching move to the front of the line as the deadline isn’t going to be early enough to impact the outcome, you’d be trading for a maximum of 4 starts.

God it feels good to have actual baseball questions and topics again.  

A Period of Reflection

I’m sure some of you noticed, we’ve been fairly quiet over here at Inside the Bucs Basement. There is something to be said for a period of reflection, a step back to help yourself to end the cycle of riding the waves and the emotion that comes with them.

Major League Baseball as you know is embroiled in a contentious restart negotiation, and as sport fans and social media are apt to do, many have chosen sides. I’ve tried to remain pretty centered, always reminding myself that both sides play a role in this utter failure to compromise, but as the news rolls in sometimes minute by minute it becomes harder to avoid the instant anger that it spawns.

I found myself in the middle of an argument on Twitter as to whether the players had any culpability here. I think it’s fairly obvious they do, but in an effort to argue my point I found myself reaching. Using examples for things the players did, including many I felt they were wholly justified in using, just to prove my point. In other words, winning the argument became more important than the integrity of my views. That’s just not right, nor do I want it to define me as a writer. When I don’t trust myself, it’s hard to ask readers to trust my opinion and I feared that’s where I was headed.

I write with emotion, call it a flaw if you like but it’s part of what makes me tick, that said, it can’t become all it’s about. So, what I’m going to try to do today is put it all on the table and see how we feel about the situation when we do the math. I don’t want to focus only on the immediate need to start playing, but let’s stare into the future a bit too because this negotiation has very much so been highjacked a bit by what’s coming.

First, let’s look at the player’s side of all this. Safety was important in the beginning, forgotten in the middle and resurrected as we’ve reached the end. When the players agreed in March to accept the agreement with the owners, they either didn’t read it closely, or completely misunderstood some of the implications. It seems they would readily accept a 70-game season with extended playoffs, but a 60-game season is completely out of bounds.

The owners have scarcely bent in weeks but did drop the demand that players dip below pro-rated pay for players in the last few rounds, but it came with the caveat of less games. 60 seems to be their high-water mark and somehow 70 is off the table. Safety is a concern, but I get the impression for the owners it’s more about liability than actual preparedness.

Now, that is a very simplified view of the stances each side are taking, but it’s tough to see this and not say, hey guys, could we just do 65 and call it a day? When the divide is that slim, I see no way to look at it without at least considering, neither side really wants to play. For instance, if Rob Manfred actually has to mandate a season, the league is completely open to liability, and they lose the extended playoff money. Is that worth 5 games of revenue losses, hell is 10 games worth that? Seems short-sighted to say the least and it really makes me question the motivation coming from this side.

The 5 to 10 game difference for the majority of players is negligible to be honest. Sure, the guys who make 30 million per season will feel it, but in the greater scheme of things we’re talking about a pretty small figure for the players largest segment. For every player making the league minimum, an extra 5 games would add up to a little less than 20K. I just can’t see this being a deal breaker for either group involved here.

Next we have all the whacky rule changes. We’ve heard about the DH, possible robo umps, extended rosters, taxi squads, extra inning games ending in a tie, extra inning games starting with a runner at second, relaxed substitution rules in extra innings and of course extended playoffs. Many of these items have been on Rob Manfred’s wish list for some time, and make no mistake, if they are implemented, they’ll not be easily eliminated. For much of this process I’ve dismissed these changes as being worth it entirely as having baseball this season in any form was the goal. Now if baseball is going to only play 60 games and Mr. Manfred is forced to implement it, most of these don’t happen, if they agree to 65 or 70 and sign a new agreement, many will be part of the deal. So, I ask myself, is a transformation of the game this drastic worth a 65 or 70 game season? I’m not sure I have an answer for myself yet, and I’d bet many of you are right there with me, but suffice to say, be careful what you wish for, you just might get it.

The final puzzle for me with the negotiation is my utter confusion as to how Rob Manfred and Tony Clark managed to talk themselves into having a face to face meeting, but neither were “empowered” by the groups they represent to hammer this out. Think about this, here are the two leaders and neither group trusted them enough to let them take this to the finish line. Now, if that doesn’t speak to the ineffectiveness of both of them, I don’t know what does. I don’t say that to bash these two as the only issue, surely everything I touched on is real, but how do they sit down, talk and formulate enough of a framework to take it back and still be this far apart? Like, how did Tony not say, hey Rob listen, if we can’t get to 70, we’re gonna have issues passing this. Maybe he did, maybe he told Manfred in that sit down what he needed to see, and Rob just shook his head in agreement and came up with 60 anyway just to “win”. Maybe it was reversed, we may never know, which is surprising since it felt like we were coming close to getting reports of bathroom breaks as it unfolded.

None of this addresses the serious disconnect between MLB and MiLB either. I’ll be honest, I’ve heard the MiLB players mentioned by a handful of writers, primarily writers who focus on MiLB as their gig. We’ve seen some players step up and offer to help support the minor league players, David Price probably most visibly, and I’ll note he was not the one who promoted his good will. We’ve seen some organizations step up and pledge to continue paying the players too which is great. I think what I come out of all this thinking is really that this group can not continue to have no seat with the MLBPA. There is just simply nobody looking out for them and while I understand they don’t have the same circumstances as the MLB guys, they can’t continue to be expected to thrive in this system. This event has shined a light too bright to ignore on just how much these guys are an afterthought. Imagine being a professional athlete and relying on charity to stay in the game. To draw the best athletes to the game, one thing baseball must tackle is making the path there a bit more attractive, they’ve done a terrible job of it at every level.

Finally, MLB must implement a cap. Just no way around it and I’m not going to slow pedal into it. Here is some reading on why it’s so important from two journalists I respect. Mike DeCourcy from The Sporting News and Dejan Kovacevic from DK Pittsburgh Sports.

Whether baseball is played this season or not, fixing the game at its core is of paramount importance and I’m more than fine with losing as much baseball as it takes to get it. This isn’t an anti-player view by the way, I’ve proposed in the past implementing a cap with revenue sharing and setting the cap way too high. This wouldn’t immediately help the Pirates, but it would prevent salary cap selloffs and enable teams time to adjust. They could even explore a slow roll into true revenue sharing to enable the system to avoid being a shock to the system. They could develop a signing bonus structure that operates outside the cap or in tandem with it like the NFL. So many options and so few restrictions on how it ultimately happens but the sport will continue its downhill track if they don’t address the competitive balance. It’s a reality that the league must stop ignoring. If you don’t agree, or think you need to show what a swell person you are because you want the players to make bank, I get that, but man it gets pretty tough to see a league that stays this size let alone expands if they don’t address it. That would seem to ultimately hurt the earning potential. We’re already seeing teams like the Red Sox pull the rip cord, they won’t be the last. When one of the 6 or so teams who can actually afford those top end contracts decides they won’t, where do you think that leads? And yes, I’ve heard how long it’s been since the Yankees or Dodgers won the World Series, I kinda pay attention to baseball ya know? The cap is less about saying the big guys win every year and more about understanding the function of hope. See when I embark on Spring training and the ultimate peak of hopefulness that comes with opening day, I can think of exactly 3 seasons I had real hope my team would win it all. That encompasses nearly forty years of fandom. Say what you will about the cheapness of some owners, but on Bob Nutting’s best day they simply won’t compete with many clubs on payroll. The Brewers won’t either. Sure, they spend more, but they can’t sustain it and I suspect when push comes to shove, they won’t ultimately be able to spend enough. They’ll wind up a dollar short or a day late. That said as a fan, I’d be so thankful to see them put it out there to keep Christian Yelich in town, the sad thing is I’d also know it probably will prevent them from retaining much beyond him.

It shouldn’t be that way. You should be able to accept down seasons as the downswing that precedes the up. There is a reason the free agent market stagnated, and in many ways avoiding a cap for all these years has sent the roosters home to roost.

So, there you have it, all these things and more have been swirling in my head. I’ll write more obviously but when the game I love shows no sign of an immediate future, it becomes difficult to look forward. When it becomes obvious the powers that be refused to learn from their game’s history it becomes a challenge to look backward as well.

Perhaps reflection is something that not only I should seek.

Five Thoughts At Five: Moments In Time

Over the last few months my feelings toward Major League Baseball have gone through what feels like a journey through the 5 Stages of Grief; denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. With what appears to be no end in sight to the negotiations between MLB and the MLBPA, I look back on the last month and the moments that stick out to me, which have ultimately have led me to where I currently stand as it pertains to my favorite pastime.

1. One Month Ago: This was the last time that there was any talk about the heath protocols, when the MLBPA responded to the 67 page medical and safety protocol, originally presented them by MLB a week earlier. Since this time there has been no comment on steps that have been taken to address the concerns that the players had concerning the original draft. I also haven’t heard a peep from anyone on either side and a minimal murmur from a few people on the media side I follow on Twitter. Why is this? Shouldn’t you address whether or not it is reasonable to expect you can play and keep everyone safe before squabbling over money?

2. One Week Ago: The MLB Draft took place and everything felt kind of normal, even if it was just for a short time. Heck even Rob Manfred got in on the fun and excitement by 100% guaranteeing that there would be an MLB Season. However, after all of this excitement, as we all know Rob is not so sure anymore. Also remember that the young men that we chosen by their respective MLB Teams have no where to go, the draft was only 5 rounds thanks to the agreement between MLB and the MLBPA in exchange for $170 Million and service time and once again that the boys drafted have nowhere to go because there is no MiLB season.

3. One Day Ago: The MLB Players and their movement was given a rallying cry or more of a hashtag to be specific. #When&Where is everywhere, even on T-Shirts. In response to Manfred’s wavering optimism, the players are calling him out and rightfully so. However, this campaign makes me start to wonder if everyone has forgotten about the global pandemic taking place. Have they been given clearance from medical professionals concerning the when and where? With there being spikes in states that are homes for certain MLB Teams is this even a possibility. Let me make it abundantly clear that this is not a discussion about the legitimacy of COVID-19, it is about the fact that the fear of a spike was the original reason for shutting down the game to begin with.

4. One Hour Ago: As I had a lot of time to think about the current situation over the past 24 hours of so, I as a fan have my own slogan, #Who&How. Who is going to play and how is it reasonably expected to happen? In the beginning it appeared to all be about the virus, with certain players teetering between playing and not due to health risks and concerns, having to be away from family members and putting others in their lives at risk. These are all viable worries that could and should be addressed with a waiver, but that doesn’t seem to be on the table currently. The how is just as unclear as it was when baseball was shut down back on March 12th, as some institutions are still unsure that they will be returning in the fall and it is unknown if a resurgence of the virus could shut everything down again or at least make us pause. This brings me back to the fact that the medical and safety protocols haven’t been addressed in a month.

5. One Minute Ago: I am a huge baseball fan that enjoys nothing more than watching, researching, talking about and reading and writing articles on baseball. Everything that is going on right now isn’t baseball. I can’t read or write another article on the top 5 Pittsburgh Pirates of all time at a given position, the forgotten players of yesteryear, a trade that had a negative effect on a season that happened years ago, a prospect or draftee’s current potential that honestly hasn’t changed because they aren’t able to play right now and feelings on the battle between MLB and the MLBPA. I just can’t anymore.

For now I will be anxiously awaiting the return of my favorite sport and pastime, while continuing to work behind the scenes to help Minor League Baseball Players in anyway that I can because it is a passion of mine. So to MLB Owners, Players and Media Members, I will be here to greet the game with open arms when it returns; just let me know When and Where.

We Used to Respect the Baseball Commissioner

Has there been strife or disagreement in the past? Oh, absolutely, but we knew one thing, the commissioner of baseball loved the game. Did it prevent bad choices? No, not always, but knowing it came from a good place was certainly an improvement over what we’re seeing now.

I’m not here to judge his personal life. I’m not saying Rob Manfred is a terrible person or a bad father, husband. No, we’re going to just stick to business here, the business of baseball. You know, the one with a trophy that according to the most powerful man in the sport amounts to little more than a hunk of metal.

The trophy is just a symbol, it’s the symbol of a culmination of nine months of work, at least. From February when pitchers and catchers report, through a grueling season complete with ups and downs, injuries and rehab, relationships with coaches and other players. Time away from family, sore muscles and ice baths all along the journey. Finally, you make it to October, a dream you’ve had since you weren’t even allowed to throw a curveball. As it stands now you have a one in ten chance of being part of the team that raises that hunk of metal. That meaningless symbol that your commissioner just affirmed means far more to you than him.

When you think back to the early days of Spring, it seems like it’s been years now, but there we were talking about the ongoing cheating scandal in baseball, when our commissioner uttered those telling words. He probably said it out of frustration if we’re honest, but the fact it was in there alone was enough to show at the very least, this man, had no clue what it took to acquire that championship trophy.

We should have known back then that he lacked the temperament for what was coming. We should have assumed right then, officiating a game in which you so openly disrespect the men who play it would only breed discontent. How could we expect players to negotiate with a man who clearly thinks their contributions to the wealth of his game amount to little more than a worthless trinket?

This throwaway comment is not solely responsible for negotiations breaking down, I’m not that naïve, neither are you I’m sure. No, I look at is simply as an underlying belief that the business of the game was more important than the very soul of the sport. Is love of the game a prerequisite for the commissioner gig? No, but it sure used to be a consideration at least.

So here we sit, with a commissioner who has shown distain for the players, carelessness toward the championship and this man is the one person who can actually open the gate and let the game come back. What a mess.

Perhaps the 1999 decision to eliminate the American and National League Presidents was a mistake. The role exists today but it’s purely ceremonial, they have no teeth. Maybe relying on one man to officiate the sport with no checks and balances was a mistake. Sure, most of his decisions are voted on by the owners, but maybe having a conscience at the top of both leagues gave the owners more of a backbone to stand in the way of their game being run into the ground. Maybe this is just fresher in my mind than the countless other times this league has tried to eat itself alive.

I’m certainly not saying we have to love everyone who holds the office of commissioner, but respecting them would seem to be a lowest common denominator to shoot for.

Time for Rob Manfred to go. He can’t be trusted with what’s next.