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Wednesday, August 06, 2003

If I Were a GM (ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum)

Is this the Littlefield I carried?  Is this the Brian Giles at play?

If I were a GM,

Ya ha deedle deedle, bubba bubba deedle deedle dum.

All day long I’d try to dump some bucks

If I were the Bucs? GM.

(with no apologies to "Fiddler on the Roof")

 

The buzzword in Pittsburgh is "financial flexibility,&quot which appears to be a euphemism for "get rid of high-priced contracts.&quot Reportedly, commissioner Bud Selig recently cited the Pirates for being out of compliance with major league baseball?s debt/equity ratio requirements, which in turn led to a mandate from owner Kevin McClatchy to GM Dave Littlefield to slash payroll. Aramis Ramirez ? due $6 million in 2004 ? was the first to go. Jason Kendall - owed $42 million on his long-term deal, with $8.5 million next year - and Brian Giles - entering the last year of a deal that will also pay him $8.5 million - are likely to be next. Kris Benson ? carrying a $6.1 million salary in 2004 ? would likely already have been gone had he not gone on the DL with a shoulder injury, amid reports that Benson wanted to be disabled to avoid a trade to a city to which his wife did not want to go.

 

I don?t doubt that the debt/equity ratio problem is well-known throughout MLB. Littlefield?s deal with the Cubs in which he got back significantly less than full value for Ramirez and Kenny Lofton, and the reported deal with San Diego in which the Pirates will get back very little for Kendall and Giles (and which is reportedly being held up because the Padres want the Bucs to kick in more money to pay Kendall?s contract), are signs that other ML teams know exactly what the Pirates are up against. Littlefield has a tough job, but I think there are some things that he can do both to give the Bucs some additional flexibility and to keep a potentially competitive core in place for 2004. If I were the GM, here?s what I?d try to do:

1. Move Kendall for whatever it takes ? even if that?s no more than a low-level minor leaguer.

Kendall?s contract is the longest-term drag on the Pirates? finances. At this stage of his career, while Kendall is still an above-average player, it?s pretty clear that he?s a step or two below the elite level that he appeared to be moving toward before the ankle injury and thumb problems arrested his development. He?s basically the same high-OBP, low-power player that he was when he first came up, and he?s showing no signs of regaining the power stroke that he had before the injuries. He?s not likely to return value in performance for the money he?s going to make. My #1 priority would be to get out from under as much of that deal as I could. I wouldn?t go looking for a significant return in terms of players ? the primary goal would be to find a team willing to assume as much of the remainder of the contract as I could find. Even if I had to pay half of it, that?s still saving $4-5 million a season. Maybe I?m overly optimistic, but I think I could find "someone" who?d make a deal on that basis.

2. Don?t trade Giles without an overwhelming offer.

Giles is the one high-salaried player who is likely to return something close to his full value during the remainder of his contract. The Pirates can afford to carry his salary if they move Kendall, even if the payroll goes down to $35 million in 2004. For that reason, the Bucs don?t need to be anxious to move Giles, and I definitely would "de-link" the Giles and Kendall contracts, because that move artificially deflates Giles?s value with no long-term benefit to the team. If San Diego really wanted Giles, for example, I wouldn?t consider a deal that didn?t include both Sean Burroughs and Jake Peavy.

3. Move out the marginal veterans.

 

Reggie Sanders and Matt Stairs and Randall Simon have little long-term value to the Pirates, and they are taking playing time away from prospects who would be making less and who have more value to the team down the road. It?s time to see what I can get for them.

4. Trust my own prospects.

Jason Bay didn?t hit AA for the first time until age 23. By that age, Tony Alvarez had a season and a half of AA experience, posting an .836 OPS in a tough ballpark for hitters (Altoona). This year, while Bay is posting better numbers in AAA than is Alvarez, Alvarez isn?t exactly posting Mendoza-line numbers, and Alvarez (who is 15 months younger than Bay) has been ahead of Bay at comparable ages throughout their careers. I don?t see any strong reason to favor Bay over Alvarez other than current performance; Alvarez?s history is better, and I think he?s at least a good a candidate as Bay to have major league success.

 

JJ Davis and Xavier Nady are almost exactly the same age. It took JJ a while to develop, but he finally had a breakthrough season at age 23 in Altoona last year, and has continued his power development this year, slugging .532 at Nashville. Nady was drafted out of college and thus has less time in the minors than does Davis. His power numbers at Portland last year weren?t nearly as good as Davis?s are this year, although he was a year younger at the level. It?s not easy to get a read on the comparison between the two, since all of Nady?s minor league career except for his half-season at AAA was played in the hitter-friendly California League, but they appear to have very similar skill sets and very similar talent levels.

 

So what?s the fascination with Bay and Nady? There has been a lot of disparagement of both Alvarez and Davis within the organization, and neither has been a strong candidate for a callup at any point this year (in fact, Alvarez was on the restricted list earlier this season amid reports of personal issues within the organization). But neither Bay nor Nady has demonstrated that either is likely to be substantially better on the field than Alvarez or Davis, and I don?t see the need to bring them into the organization. Move the marginal vets, give their time to Alvarez and Davis, and hold off pulling the trigger on a Giles deal until and unless someone is offered (like Burroughs and Peavy) that provides talent that doesn?t already exist near the top of the organization.

 

I would take the same approach that Minnesota did a couple of years ago. Minnesota had some guys ? Mientkiewicz, Kielty, Hunter, Mohr, Jones ? who didn?t appear to be superstar level prospects but who all had some skills. The Twins chose to let them play at the major league level, largely for the same financial reasons that the Pirates are facing now, and they developed into a pretty good team. The Pirates need to get all of their nearly-ready major-league prospects ? Alvarez and Davis and Jose Castillo and now Freddy Sanchez ? up to the big club and give them a chance to earn their spurs. I?d also trust those guys, and not hedge with veteran stopgaps. The only way I?d bring in a veteran ? like Minnesota did ? is to fill a need that can?t be met from within.

5. Level with the fans.

"We need to get our finances under control and reduce our debt to meet MLB requirements. We have a nucleus of good young players who need to play, and we think we?ll be better over the long term if we stop spending money on veteran stopgaps and trust in our own prospects, like Minnesota did three years ago. We can?t guarantee that the team will be competitive in ?x? years, but if you stick with us we think you?ll like what you see down the road."

 

It might be too late to do that now and keep the trust of the fans, but I?d keep trying to be honest about what I am doing and why I am doing it.

 

I don?t know if this will work ? but it has in my opinion a far better chance of working than just giving away the core of the team for a bunch of guys who aren?t a whole lot better than some of the players in the system now, in the name of "financial flexibility."

 

Mike Emeigh Posted: August 06, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 10 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. LVHCM Posted: August 06, 2003 at 02:32 AM (#612472)
I like your thinking regarding Kendall. He'd still be a good supporting player on a contending team for $4 mil. I'm thinking specifically a team like the Giants who will be jettisoning Benito (1.775) and Snow (6.85!!!).
   2. WTM Posted: August 06, 2003 at 02:32 AM (#612477)
I have to agree with E Street. If the Pirates could have moved Kendall for any savings at all, even just a couple million a year, they would have done it. I'd guess that it's not the yearly cost of his contract that scares other teams away, but its length. There's probably serious reluctance to get tied for over 4 years to a guy who plays a demanding position and is showing signs of serious wear and tear. He also seems to be declining more rapidly defensively than offensively, and he wasn't that good a catcher to begin with.

As for the idea of just playing whatever young guys are on hand, it's ironic that the one year during this long drought in which the Bucs did that--1997--was the best year they've had. Unfortunately, ever since then the Pirates and the Pgh. media have been drilling into the fans that young=bad, veteran=good. Correctly or not, the team seems convinced that the fans just won't tolerate a struggling rookie for more than a week or two. The fact that they brought in a bunch of "name" veterans this year and attendance still declined doesn't seem to have sunk in. Whether it's Littlefield's fault or McClatchy's, the team is just not learning from its mistakes.
   3. Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Griffin (Vlad) Posted: August 06, 2003 at 02:32 AM (#612481)
I think Kendall would be a lot easier to deal with only two or three years left on his deal, which would suggest a logical course of action: Keep him until the scope of his contract isn't quite so terrifying to other teams, then move him at part-salary for the remainder.

I agree that sacrificing Giles to drop Kendall is short-sighted at best.
   4. RP Posted: August 06, 2003 at 02:32 AM (#612497)
I agree with Crescent Fresh that the Baltimore will be in a very interesting position this offseason. If I were Beat-again, I'd go hard after Vlad (and move Gibbons to LF). Who knows? With a very nice offer and great sales pitch they might be able to get him (not that I have a lot of confidence in Beat-again's ability to make a great sales pitch). I'd also ask the Pirates about Kendall. The Orioles could afford to take Kendall's salary, and he'd be a big upgrade at what might be their weakest position.

Isn't Mientkiwicz going to be a free agent? If so, and if they could sign him for $2-3 million for a couple years, I think he'd be a nice addition. Finally, they need a #1 starter, so I'd offer Milwood or someone similar a 2 year deal. I'd let Cruz and Batista go, and play Mora at SS and find a cheap 3B, or play Mora at 3B and play Roberts at SS.

Totalling it all up, if they add Vlad at ~$15 million, Kendall at ~$8 million, Mientkiewicz at ~$3 million, and Millwood at ~$10 million, their total payroll would be ~$80-90 million, still a lot lower than the Rangers or Red Sox (let alone the Yankees). And the line-up would look like this:

Hairston 2B
Mora 3B
Vlad RF
Gibbons LF
Mientkiewicz 1B
Kendall C
Conine/Cust DH
Matos CF
Roberts SS

Conine should be able to get ~500 PA between 1B, DH, and the corner OF positions.

The rotation would look like this:

Millwood
Ainsworth
Moss
Johnson (?)
Hentgen (?)
Stephens (?)
Dubose (?)

That's not a 95 win team, but it pretty decent, and young enough develop into a serious contender.
   5. WTM Posted: August 06, 2003 at 02:32 AM (#612502)
Assuming the choice, as reported, is Hill, Beltran or Steve Smyth, it doesn't make much sense to go with a pitcher. Beltran's showing in AAA this year is pretty uninspiring. He's not fanning many batters and he's always had control problems. Smyth just sucks. And I basically believe that a position prospect with the potential to play every day inherently has more value than a pitching prospect, unless there's a big difference in ability, which I don't see here.

The Pirates have a hole now at 3B and 3Bmen are in very short supply now. There's no way they can afford anybody worthwhile in the free agent market and they have no option within their farm system. Sanchez doesn't have much power, but he can play there for now with Hill at 2B. That allows Jose Castillo eventually to take over at SS and Jack Wilson to fulfill his true destiny as a late inning defensive replacement. If they later find a 3B with power, they can trade Sanchez or Hill. Or one of the two may flop. Depth isn't a bad thing.
   6. Mike Emeigh Posted: August 07, 2003 at 02:33 AM (#612510)
Good comments, all - that was what I was hoping for when I wrote this. A few responses:

I don't believe that it's *impossible* to move Kendall's contract without linking it to Giles. As a couple of people pointed out, there are teams that will likely be looking for a catching upgrade in the off-season, and paying a couple more months of salary now probably isn't going to make the Bucs' financial situation any worse. The Bucs may have to get creative (a la the Cubs with Hundley) and accept a lesser salary in exchange. I think they have room to do that, keep Giles and still bring the payroll in at the 30-35 million range that Kevin McClatchy apparently wants for 2004.

I don't deny that the high-level Pirate prospects aren't exactly can't-miss guys. But neither are the prospects that the Pirates have been gathering in trade, or would be likely to gather in the rumored Giles/Kendall move with the Padres. I don't see that Freddy Sanchez is *significantly* better than Jose Castillo or that Jason Bay and Xavier Nady are *significantly* better than Alvarez and Davis or that Oliver Perez is *significantly* more likely to succeed than the young pitchers the Bucs have coming up. I fail to understand the rationale behind bringing in more of the same thing that you already have, especially for your most talented player.

There are far too many people who accept the idea that the Pirates needed to bring in Sanders/Stairs/Lofton as stopgaps because the younger players "weren't ready". The Twins were faced with a similar situation in 2000, and instead of doing that decided to bite the bullet and play those younger players who didn't appear to be ready; two years later they won their division with many of those players in key roles. The Pirates had nothing to lose over the long haul by giving Alvarez and Davis and Craig Wilson shots at full-time major league jobs *this* year, and they might very well be better positioned for *next* year had they done so. Now they're in the same position going into 2004 that they were going into 2003, now knowing what they have and facing the prospect of having to burn another year to find out.

San Diego would claim Giles (which forces the Bucs to deal with the Pads or no one) but not Kendall. Kendall will clear waivers because no one will want to take the risk of being stuck with the contract; I have no doubt that if anyone were so foolish as to claim Kendall the Pirates would gratefully let him go.

I don't think Bobby Hill can handle 3B on a regular basis in the majors. He wasn't that bad defensively at 2B when I saw him a couple of years ago, and I think he'll hit OK, but I don't see him as having a higher upside than Castillo; again, that would seem to me to be bringing in something that the Bucs already have in Castillo and now Sanchez.

-- MWE
   7. Mike Emeigh Posted: August 07, 2003 at 02:33 AM (#612513)
now knowing what they have and facing the prospect of having to burn another year to find out.

That first word should be *not*.

-- MWE
   8. WTM Posted: August 07, 2003 at 02:33 AM (#612514)
"There are far too many people who accept the idea that the Pirates needed to bring in Sanders/Stairs/Lofton as stopgaps because the younger players 'weren't ready'."

I don't think the decision to bring in veterans had anything to do with what makes sense from a baseball standpoint. Everything the Pirates have been doing seems to be done with one eye on gate receipts. They seem to be convinced that the sight of struggling rookies will kill attendance, and that making a "run at .500" will boost it. The poor attendance early this year, when there was a very optimistic atmosphere around the team due to the signings of so many "name" players, should have convinced them otherwise, but I don't think it has. Even having dumped Ramirez and being close to dumping Kendall and Giles, the message to the fans is, "Be patient and we'll use the savings to bring in some more players you've heard of in the off-season."

Basically, the team has consistently sacrificed its hopes of long-term success for short-term revenue. There seems to be more of a sense of direction than there was prior to Littlefield, but it's the wrong direction.
   9. Rich Posted: August 07, 2003 at 02:33 AM (#612520)
Mike E has written an excellent analysis of the Bucs situation and has raised some interesting ideas, all of which are wonderfully debatable. However I have to take issue with his perception that the signings of Lofton, Sanders, Stairs, Suppan and D'Amico were detrimental to the Pirates this year and to the development of young Buccos.

What is surprising is that each of these veterans has performed at or above their expected levels coming into the season. Not one could be considered a disappointment (possibly Simon could be). Sure, Stairs started slowly and Sanders slumped for a while, but overall they have performed well. Coming out of Spring Training, if you knew that this would be the case, I think many would have pegged the Bucs to be in contention for a division title in a weak NL Central. Certainly, in April the Pirates thought they could contend if they received significant contributions from these vets.

And looking back, they were probably right to think that way. What really derailed their season and subsequently led to the trades, was the poor start to the season which was in large part attributable to Brian Giles' injury. Had Giles no been hurt for a month, weakening the lineup in a domino effect, there are many reasons to believe that the Pirates would be within 2 or 3 games of first place, or closer, and in the thick of the race in a very average division. In fact, since June 14, the Pirates own the best record in the NL Central, 2.5 games better than the Astros.

It is hard to imagine, if Giles did not get hurt and the young players were allowed to play instead of signing the vets, that the Pirates would have received contributions from JJ Davis, Tony Alvarez and even Craig Wilson that they would have needed to contend - which remember was the stated goal of the team at the start of the season.

Once the team was so far removed from first place, their revenue projections went out the window and the trades came as a result - which when all is said and done and Sanders is also dealt, was always the fallback that Littlefield held when signing these players to one year deals. So far, the team hasn't performed as expected and Littlefield was forced to resort to Plan B - trading the vets for the future.

In 2002, Aramis Ramirez suffered a season wrecking injury in early May in Milwaukee that derailed the Pirate season (not that they would have contended anyway). In 2003, a better Pirate team was similarly derailed by an injury to their best player. Giles time out of the lineup and his relatively long time to return to his usual form, prevented the Bucs from realizing their hopes for the year. Littlefield had a plan and it very well could have worked out as he dreamed. What he couldn't account for is injuries, knowing full well that his team, and many small market others, cannot overcome injuries to their top players, unlike some of the large market teams. Was it a short sighted plan? Not unless contending for a division title is short sighted. And when you begin to tick off singular events that have doomed the Bucs this year (Benson's regression, the bullpen's implosion, Ramirez's slow start, Giles' injury and the inexplicably poor defense turned in not only by Ramirez but also by Jack Wilson and Pokey Reese) Littlefield can hardly be blamed. He is now in a deep hole that is not of his creation and I, for one, think he is the man to lead the Bucs out of it.

   10. WTM Posted: August 07, 2003 at 02:33 AM (#612521)
Up to a point, I agree with Rich. I don't think the Pirates were in a position to go with young guys this year. The veterans, as a group, did outperform expectations. And the Pirates were sunk by Giles' injury and the collapse of Benson and the bullpen. But IMO he's giving Littlefield too much credit. DL couldn't have expected the injury or Benson's problems, although he could have expected that Williams, Boehringer and Sauerbeck wouldn't repeat their career seasons of 2002. (And how many teams go all year without having a starting pitcher or two get hurt or have a bad year?) But he also couldn't have expected Suppan to emerge the way he did, or Jeff D'Amico to go the whole season so far and not miss a start, or Lofton, Sanders and Stairs all to play at or above expectations and not have a serious injury among them.

Every team every year has unexpected things happen, both bad and good. If these bad things hadn't happened to the Bucs, but instead Suppan had an ERA over 5.00, D'Amico and Sanders got hurt, and Lofton continued his decline--all reasonable outcomes--the team would have ended up pretty close to where it is now. I'm just not willing to go so far as saying that DL really built a contending team. I think--and DL's own comments reflect this--that he built a team that, if a lot of things went right, could finish at .500. And I think it was done with the idea that that would somehow bring the fans back.

I do agree with Mike, though, that now is the time to start playing some of the young guys. I wouldn't go as far as he would--I wouldn't have Castillo, Burnett or VanBenschoten skip AAA in particular--but then it doesn't really matter because the team is determined not to go with young players anyway.

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