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Pirates Finding New Ways To Lose; Also, No More "Scholarship"

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Typical--the Bucs didn't get blown out by San Diego tonight, and they weren't even unambiguously bad, but they still ended up on the wrong side when the game ended. The Pirates rallied from a 6-2 deficit to tie the game against Heath Bell in the ninth, and that inning featured an awesome plate appearance by Steve Pearce, who laid off a number of tough breaking balls to draw a walk and keep the inning going. But their lack of a real bullpen ultimately undid them as they headed to extra innings--any team with bullpen troubles will be exposed in an 11-inning game, and in this case the Pirates were in a doubly tough spot because Joel Hanrahan, their best reliever by a mile right now, is on the shelf with elbow trouble. Anyway, if you have to rely on the likes of Jeff Karstens in a tough situation, there's a very good chance you're going to lose.

In the meantime, the Bucs' offense did the team no favors by leaving a ridiculous number of batters on base--the Bucs wrangled eleven hits and nine walks, but only scored six times. Garrett Jones hit his 20th home run of the season but, as has so often been the case for him (and I'm not bashing him for this because I don't think it represents a skill, just pointing out a fact), it was a solo job.

Whatever! I'm tired of this. Let's talk about something else. Let's talk about the word "scholarship." I come to bury that word, to attempt to remove it from Pirates-related discourse, except as it applies to draftees. For example, "Colton Cain passed up a scholarship to the University of Texas" is an acceptable use of the word. But "I don't know why Andy LaRoche is still starting, since Neal Huntington promised there would be no scholarships" is not. The attempted removal of a word sounds pretty fascist of me, I admit, but I'm not forcing anyone to stop using it, and if the tactic is good enough for an institution of higher learning, it's good enough for me.

I believe Huntington introduced the concept of a "scholarship." Unfortunately, I can't find its point of origin, because if you Google "neal huntington" and "scholarship" on the Post-Gazette's website, you get an amazing 124 results. What I took Huntington to mean or, at least, what most Pirate fans currently interpret Huntington to mean, is that under-performing players would not be given "scholarships"; that is, they would not receive playing time they did not earn on the field. 

This was a stupid thing for Huntington to have said (and not only because the "scholarship" students I knew in college were often the hardest working and most talented ones, the ones who didn't need their parents to pay their way, but I digress). The goal of a baseball team should not be to mete out rewards and punishments for its players based on how they do; it should be to win games. It's true that the former often goes hand in hand with the latter, but not always. When deciding who gets major league playing time, there shouldn't be moral considerations about the perceived quality of someone's previous play; instead, it should be one factor that should be weighed along with others. When I hear most fans dismissively use the word "scholarship," I feel like what they really want is some sort of vigilante justice based on how the fans feel someone is playing. Justice has little to do with it.

The fact is that top prospects, like Andrew McCutchen or Pedro Alvarez, should get scholarships, while journeymen should have to do more to prove themselves. If Alvarez comes up after tearing it up for three months at Indianapolis next year, he should play every day in the big leagues, even if he starts 5-for-50. If Ronny Cedeno gets hurt and Argenis Diaz comes up and hits 12-for-30 in his absence, the Pirates should probably send Diaz back to Indianapolis once Cedeno is healthy.

Yesterday in the comments, someone mentioned the concept of a "scholarship" in reference to the possibility that Jeff Clement could end up starting next year. Now, one can certainly express the hope that Clement will not start next year, but invoking the "scholarship" concept attempts to find a very uncomplicated kind of justice in what is actually a very complicated situation. The Pirates will have two outfield positions set with McCutchen and Lastings Milledge, while Jones has shown he should get more playing time in either the other outfield position or at first.

That leaves either an outfield spot or first base unaccounted for. There is, of course, a chance that the Pirates could seek a free agent like Rick Ankiel, but many free agents do not want to play for the Bucs, and the Pirates shouldn't want to give a free agent so much money or so many years that he interferes with the team's long term plans. If they can't find a suitable free agent, and I'd actually bet against them finding one, that leaves them looking for a trade or an internal option. Alvarez or Jose Tabata could be possibilities, but both could probably use at least a couple more months in the minors--the Alex Gordon Problem applies in Alvarez's case, and Tabata hasn't really dominated in the high minors yet.

That leaves guys like Brandon Moss, Pearce and Clement, and of that bunch, why not Clement? Moss is a fourth outfielder, and while Pearce might be a reasonable bench option, he's had an up-and-down career since 2007 and could probably be considered as much of a "scholarship" case as Clement is. (So could Moss, actually.) Clement has a first-round pedigree and a reasonably good minor-league track record. He tailed off badly after a hot start at Indianapolis this year, but that may have had something to do with the oblique strain that finally shelved him. It's not at all unreasonable to think he's a better, higher-upside choice than either Moss or Pearce. Alternately, the Bucs could platoon the lefty Clement with the righty Pearce.

Choosing Clement need not have anything to do with "scholarships." That's irrelevant. It has to do with sorting through a number of possibilities, all with pros and cons, and finding the best one for the present and future of the organization. Sometimes that means playing the guy who played best last month, or for some short span in the majors last year, or for some longer span in the minors this year. Sometimes it doesn't. Anyway, I usually get the sense that when someone is using the word "scholarship," it usually just means "The Pirates are playing a guy I don't like." Instead of using that word, make an argument. There's no doubt that the Bucs sometimes make personnel decisions I don't agree with, but that doesn't mean there's some moral dimension to it, and it simply doesn't follow that the Pirates should always use the guy who played best in whatever arbitrary timeframe or context you care to pick. So please, no more "scholarship." Let's just leave that word alone.

By the way, this post is dedicated to Neil Walker, who earlier this year complained that players like him and the great Brian Bixler were getting the shaft while players acquired by Neal Huntington coasted through. Walker didn't use the word "scholarship," but that's the concept he was invoking.

Well, it's extremely early, and of course it's still possible that Walker turns a corner, but he has begun his major league career 4-for-26. And, with his inning-ending double play with two men on in the bottom of the tenth, he's as responsible as anyone or the loss tonight. Cheers to you, Neil! May your teammates in Indianapolis next year enjoy your grousing as much as I have.