Not to go all Bob Smizik on you, but I've had a bunch of thoughts on the Pirates and their approach and couldn't think of a good way to present them, so you're getting a list. Yeah, I know. Merry Christmas.
1.) It's time to trade Joel Hanrahan or significantly increase his role. I'm going to write a longer post about this, but I think this is the most important thing the Pirates can do this offseason. The market for closers has gone crazy as we've seen from the signings of Jonathan Paplebon, Heath Bell and others. Being in just his second year of arbitration at an expected cost of $4-5 million, Hanrahan's value is unlikely to ever be higher than it will be over the next six months. Having seen what the Padres got for Mike Adams and what other relievers fetched at the trade deadline, I'm not opposed to waiting until then to move Hanrahan, but if the Pirates are going to keep him his role needs to change.
To be competitive this team needs to start thinking differently than the other 29 teams in the game. Not to be overly simplistic, but they do need to find their own "Moneyball" approach. This is Step 1 and it seems like a relatively easy one to me. We know the way teams manage based on the save statistic is ridiculous. The Pirates need to aggressively move away from that and use their best reliever in the highest leverage situations and for more than three outs on more occasions. The Pirates have the potential to have a very deep bullpen this year, but everything should be built around Hanrahan if he is going to be there. That doesn't mean getting the ball to him in the ninth, it means using Hanrahan in a way that gives the team the best chance to win most often. Again, nothing new here.
The last three years JH has pitched 64.0, 69.2 and 68.2 innings. He made 67, 72 and 70 appearances. He's 30 years old and he's a former starter. The Pirates need to look at Rich Gossage's career and usage patterns and develop a plan that has Hanrahan able to pitch between 90-110 innings. From 1977-84 (age 25-32) Gossage pitched at least 87 innings six of eight seasons, and at least 99 in four of them. He made more than 64 appearances in only one of those seasons. Yes, this type of usage pattern will mean there are save situations where JH is not available, but that happened this past year as well. The Pirates need to manage to win the game being played on that day. That doesn't necessarily mean using Hanrahan more often, it means using him for longer outings. This past year, Hanrahan's pitches/plate appearance dropped from 4.03 and 3.99 in '09 and '10 to a career-low 3.75 (ML avg is 3.81). He threw 144 fewer pitches in one fewer inning. it was clear from watching that he was focused on being much more economical in getting outs.
When I asked Hurdle, after a mid-season game that the Pirates effectively lost in the 8th against the middle of the opponents line-up, whether he considered using Hanrahan in that situation, he said he had, but he hadn't discussed it with Joel and didn't want to thrust that upon him without talking about it first. I didn't think that was a great answer. This team has to be ready for every contingency. It has to use it's best players in the best situations. They need to go into this season expecting at least 90 innings out of Hanrahan. Sure it may not work and we can debate the "closer mentality", the importance of guys having defined roles, etc., but simply put, if your best pitcher pitches 30 more high leverage innings your team is likely to significantly improve. (more later)
2.) Chris Leroux, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson should all start Spring Training as starting pitchers. I don't really understand where the Pirates are on this one. Leroux wants to start and Watson and Wilson have been starters. I'm fully aware that they all may end up in the bullpen on April 1, but the team is bereft of starting pitching and Leroux and Watson were two of the team's more effective pitchers last season. It also makes sense to give Wilson one more crack at it before making a permanent switch. Bryan Morris has already been moved to the pen and the jury is definitely out on Brad Lincoln, Rudy Owens and Jeff Locke. I didn't understand NH's concern that Leroux is out of options this season. The team can always move him to the pen, but it makes sense to build his arm up in ST and take a look. Yes, come August you may run into an increase in innings issue since he only pitched 93 last year. But, Leroux will be 28 in April, and it is definitely worth rolling the dice on a guy with good stuff who the team picked up on the waiver wire in Sept. 2010. (Yes, I know Leroux has been starting in winter ball, but I still don't think it is in the Pirates plans come spring.)
3.) The signings of Nate McLouth and Wilson Betemit are fine and probably should even be considered good except that Betemit hasn't actually signed yet and I haven't seen the dollars involved in either deal (McLouth now confirmed at $1.75. I'm fine with that). As Charlie points out it would have been better if McLouth had signed a minor league deal, but at the end of the day that isn't going to make any difference. Let's repeat, there is no such thing as a bad one-year contract--my logic behind arguing the team should have exercised the options on Paul Maholm and Ronny Cedeno. McLouth and Betemit upgrade the Pirates bench. McLouth is better than both Xavier Paul and Matt Diaz. Betemit is better than both Josh Harrison and Brandon Wood. They weren't signed to be starters or big pieces of the puzzle. They are solid contingency signings and reasonable bench players. These are good moves, again, subject to price. I assume Jeremy Hefner gets moved off the 40-man for McLouth.
4.) Neal Huntington gets it, but the end of the tunnel better soon be approaching. We've discussed NH's decisions and moves and an earlier post Charlie again very eloquently points out that the team does, on occasion, have to make moves for the short-term. I was asked, by my mother of all people, last night if the Pirates were spending money appropriately. Since she was looking for the Reader's Digest version as opposed to War & Peace, I responded, "Generally yes (ex-Barmes), but ask again in March." Without having a referendum on NH's job performance here, I do think he has a plan, but unfortunately going into year five it's still 12-36 months away from bearing fruit. Meaning, he might want to buy some good fertilizer to increase the yield, while making sure he doesn't burn the fields and have to leave them fallow down the road. It's a fine line to walk and the next two months will tell us a lot about whether he can do it. If the Pirates aren't playing .500 ball in 2013 the Neal Huntington/Gary Kubiak parallels are will be self-evident. The difference being that NH may not get 2014, whereas Kubiak did another shot and delivered with the Texans this year.
5.) Clint Hurdle mostly gets it, but sometimes ... I've talked about Hurdle plenty. He's a great guy, seems to me to be a good leader and a guy who cares about his players. He realizes the need to continue to teach at the major league level and has tried to implement that aggressively with his staff. I'm not going to pass judgment on his staff's teaching/coaching skills based on one season, but the results this past year were questionable with regard to improvement in-season. What I will continue to question is Hurdle's in game strategy. WTM has done some great work over the past year cataloging Hurdle's managerial tendencies. Most people here at BD are on the same page, and it will be interesting to see if a year in the organization will impact Hurdle's approach. NH didn't hire Dan Fox and his staff just to run analysis. The point is to take what that analysis tells you and implement it. I don't profess to know exactly what they work on, but I do know Hurdle often manages against the basic percentages and at some point one would think/hope that would change. It isn't the result that is important when discussing strategic decisions, it's the process and too often it seems Clint is going with feel and gut. I do believe he sees things that I and others don't and if that is the reason for a decision, that's fine. But, that needs to be logically explained. And when he spits out gems like this from today's PG and yesterday's extended interview with the media, I just cringe and hope that's a PR line. There is no question in my opinion that strategic decision-making hurt the Pirates more than it helped in 2011. Hurdle talks about much of the Pirates improvement coming from within. He's got room.
6.) If Derrek Lee accepts arbitration I will do whatever is proposed in the comments that is the most ridiculous, but doesn't involve bodily harm or me getting arrested.
UPDATE: Lots of news above with the Bedard signing, the teams now out on Betemit and DFA'ing Jaramillo and Ciriaco. Things are moving fast today.