I have been defending the Pirates front office for the better part of two years and I will continue to do so because I really believe they are on the right track. But, at the moment, the on-field decisions and the lack of organizational planning at the major league level are almost mind-blowing.
Let's start at the beginning. I am willing to be on-board, even in hindsight, with all decisions made coming out of spring training. That's what a fan does. Hope springs eternal and out of spring training I am willing to give the team a pass. Forty-five days of practice and games that I am not privy to mean they get to make the call without a word of criticism from me. But now let's review.
There are always roster decisions to be made out of spring training. Deck chairs on the Titanic? In hindsight none of these are particularly relevant. Ramon Vazquez was released and the Pirates ate his $2 million in salary. The money was already spent, good decision. Brandon Moss and Steve Pearce were sent down and John Raynor made the team. This made sense from an asset management perspective because not keeping Raynor would mean losing him. I'm good with that. Hayden Penn got picked up just before breaking camp and went north with the club. I was and am actually very supportive of that decision. Getting players into the system at no cost is good. Penn was a disaster in his three appearances, but as I have written, that probably had its benefit as well. The team was able to pass him through waivers and send him to extended spring training and eventually Indianapolis in an effort to get him on the right track. Evan Meek and Donnie Veal were excellent Rule V pickups and I view Penn the same way, but he now has the benefit of working things out in the minors rather than in Pittsburgh.
Since breaking camp Charlie Morton and Daniel McCutchen have lost their spots in the rotation--McCutchen permanently, Morton probably for another couple weeks. Brad Lincoln, one of the long-term pieces, and Jeff Karstens, a stop-gap if there ever was one, have taken their places. Dana Eveland, at the cost of AA reliever Ronald Uviedo, has replaced Jack Taschner in the pen, which otherwise remains in tact and has been one of few bright spots.
In the field Neil Walker, the best story of the season thus far, has replaced Aki Iwamura at second. Jose Tabata has replaced Lastings Milledge in left and this week Pedro Alvarez will replace Andy LaRoche at third. When Alvarez comes up Iwamura will be designated for assignment. Ryan Doumit, Ronny Cedeno and Andrew McCutchen will continue at their positions and Garrett Jones will play first or right with Steve Pearce (due back from the DL shortly) or Lastings Milledge starting at the other position. Jeff Clement has been sent down and LaRoche will become a utility player. The corresponding roster move when Pearce comes back will see Ryan Church or Delwyn Young traded (wishful) or released or, if the Pirates go to eleven pitchers (unlikely), Brendan Donnelly or DJ Carrasco released.
So, there we have it. With Alvarez up the team is most likely set for the season with Morton really the only remaining question mark. If and when Morton comes back Eveland or one of the aforementioned relievers gets released and Karstens goes back to the pen.
So my thoughts with 100 games left: I am appalled at how badly the Pirates execute the fundamentals and can't believe how poorly they have managed some on-field decisions.
It's almost ridiculous to start listing the mistakes but let's just take last night's game. First, the Pirates inexplicably start Ryan Doumit at first and use Garrett Jones as the DH. Doumit didn't catch because he is recovering from a mild concussion (if he can't catch, he probably shouldn't play). The only explanation that makes sense, and I haven't heard it yet from the team, is that if Jason Jaramillo got hurt and Doumit had to catch the Pirates would lose use of the DH if Doumit were the DH. Plausible, but ridiculous to worry about when making out the lineup.
In the seventh, up 2-1 with one out and runners on first and third, Miguel Cabrera hits a hard comebacker to Evan Meek on mound. Cabrera is sundial slow. The obvious move is to second and a double play ends the inning. Austin Jackson breaks for home and Meek, instead of going to second, hangs up Jackson in a rundown (which the Pirates rarely execute properly, btw) and they get one out rather than two. The next batter also grounds to Meek. Meek makes a low throw to first and Doumit doesn't catch it. Two runs score and the Pirates go on to lose 4-3. One game, one inning, one example but it has happened dozens of times. Andy LaRoche doesn't know the rules when he and a teammate jointly occupy third. Lastings Milledge has no idea how to run the bases, whether getting thrown out at third costing the team a run or tagging (or not) on fly balls. Ryan Doumit stands behind the plate and tags runners up high on plays at home.
This is little league stuff. Literally. Little league. The Pirates seem to make a mental or bad physical error every game. I'm not talking about pitchers not being able to hold runners, catchers unable to get the throws on the bag or outfielders (yes and this definitely includes McCutchen) taking bad routes to fly balls which also happens every game. I'm talking about things you learn when you are eight or nine years old.
From a managerial perspective it is just as bad. John Russell sat Jeff Clement about every third day early in the season, but sat him against hard-throwing righties rather than tough lefties. He had his three-hole hitter bunting in the first inning of a game with runners on first and second and then did not bunt later in the game in obvious sacrifice situations. He played Ryan Doumit at first a game after he could not field an easy grounder one step to his right that, rather than being an easy double play, became a single putting runners at first and third. The next night Doumit's ensuing error cost the team a win.
And from an organizational perspective they have made egregious errors as well. The team didn't have Andy LaRoche taking grounders at other positions in the infield, which I have been screaming about since April, when they knew Alvarez was coming up sooner or later and was going to play third base. (We won't go into whether he should be playing third base.) Six weeks later LaRoche has started taking grounders at other positions. They brought up Neil Walker three weeks ago and announced he would be a utility guy getting the spot start at the infield corners. Five days later he is annointed the starting second baseman.
This deserves its own paragraph: Neil Walker is, to my eyes, the second best athlete on the team behind Andrew McCutchen. A few years ago the team moved him from catcher to third. Now the Bucs have Pedro Alvarez in the organization. This spring the front office decided to move Walker around positionally, which was the right move, in order to find a spot for his bat if he continued to produce. In Indy Walker played left, first and second. He came up and basically was defaulted to second because Aki Iwamura was the worst positional player in baseball. Walker is playing well, and shockingly he is playing Gold Glove caliber defense at second base. He has fantastic range, particularly on pop-ups and soft liners, and he is learning to turn the double play very quickly. But this all happened by accident. This was not preparation and foresight. I give the FO small credit for quickly recognizing Walker as the best option, but they didn't have a plan. They didn't have a plan for LaRoche and didn't prepare him for the moment that was inevitably going to come. It could just as easily have been LaRoche playing second next month (and still could be), but they didn't plan for that occurrence either. How did our scouts and others in the organization not see this? (Seeing Walker's athleticism, I would seriously consider sending him to the AFL after the season and have him play shortstop. I mocked people who suggested this a few months ago and I recognize it is a long shot in terms of being successful, but I would do it. I know. I know it's crazy. But, I am now beginning to think he could handle it. And I would have LaRoche there playing second next to him if possible.)
People talk about talent evaluation as the defining measure of Neal Huntington and his organization. I don't know what to think about this. The organization has seemingly had three very good drafts. I'm fine with Huntington's record in player transactions. Mostly good in my view, some bad, but he wasn't trading much talent and he has gotten some assets through Rule V and the waiver wire for free. But, I am very troubled by the performance at the major league level. Not the skill level, which leaves a lot to be desired, but the decision making by the players and the lineup construction and in-game managing by the manager.
I am more optimistic about the talent in the Pirates organization than I have been in many years. But, I am also now more concerned than ever with how they are currently and will in the future develop that talent. The teaching that Neal Huntington continually cites as taking place is just not evident at the major league level and the long and short-term planning that is the core of any successful organization seems haphazard at best and non-existant at worst.
These are important days. Put me down as concerned.