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Ask Bucs Dugout: Qualifying offers, shortstops, payroll, and why I like baseball

Justin K. Aller

Okay, everyone, thanks for helping me generate content for today. This was fun. There are a lot of questions I haven't even looked at yet. Maybe I'll try another one later this week. Feel free to continue asking questions in the earlier thread.

CShint: Your thoughts on the QO, compensation system? Any tweaks that you think may benefit all involved? And where do you see things going in 2016 when the CBA is up?

I like the idea of compensating teams when they develop a Carl Crawford-type player and then lose him via free agency, because I think it makes sense to reward teams (even beyond the games they win) for developing talent that improves the quality of the game. At this point, though, many qualifying-offer players didn't reach free agency with the teams that developed them, and the system is mostly just suppressing salaries and destroying markets for certain players. The current policy also assigns radically different penalties to each team for each player they sign, based on where they pick in the draft. (We saw this last year when the Mets wanted to sign Michael Bourn but couldn't because the Pirates' failure to sign Mark Appel bumped the Mets down to No. 11 in the draft and made their pick unprotected. The Indians, meanwhile, only had to give up pick No. 69 to sign Bourn. Explain to me how that makes sense.) I'm coming around to the idea of doing away with the qualifying offer when the CBA expires, but I'm guessing MLB won't do that. Keith Law noted recently that Major League Baseball is great at creating policies that lead to unintended consequences.

Geoffrey Benedict: We see fan bases that are taken advantage of for showing up despite the team's performance, we’ve seen the fans not showing up because the team sucks drive a team to operate on the cheap. Is there anything fans really can do to help their team, or is it all really out of our hands?

Short of procreating like bunnies and tripling Pittsburgh's population, no, there isn't a ton fans can do, at least not in most cases. The fans played a pretty crucial role in the Pirates' Wild Card victory over the Reds last fall. That was a notable moment not only because the game itself was historic, but because it's very rare to see fans have a direct impact on a team like that. Actually (and I know I get guffaws when I say this), the 2007 Fans For Change protest may have played at least some role in the massive changes in the organization that occurred shortly thereafter. How much the protest mattered is entirely a matter of speculation, though, and even if it did, it was largely because of the publicity it generated, and not because of the fan walkout itself. Trying to get fans to organize is like herding cats, so ultimately, their power is pretty limited.

BattlingBucs: Last season the reason given for the acquisition of John McDonald was that the Pirates wanted to have three major league ready shortstops and with the recent DFA of Chase d’Arnaud there now appear to be only two? Do you think this represents a shift in beliefs, a belief Alen Hanson will be ready this season, a precursor to another move, or something else?

I can't speak to what the organization might be thinking, but if Chase d'Arnaud counts as a big-league shortstop, I think Robert Andino probably has to as well. With Jordy Mercer, Clint Barmes and Andino, they should have at least some depth.

BattlingBucs: Sports is a game of adjustments. With defensive shifts slowly coming into vogue, what will be the adjustments to attempt to counteract them?

Neal Huntington, who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do, says shifts are tough to counteract -- when a player tries to adjust for the shift, the cure can be worse than the disease -- maybe he'll try to bunt and give up a strike, for example. Of course, some teams (like the Cardinals) who haven't shifted much in the past can neutralize the shift somewhat by using it themselves. My guess is that the Pirates will try to maintain their advantage by making their shifts ever more precise and individually-tailored. They're also going to try more outfield shifting this year. But as is so often the case in competitive environments, the advantages they'll be able to glean from those kinds of innovations will get smaller and smaller as teams emulate the front runners.

Steve_Z: Who will publish your book? This answer might not demand much thought, but I’d like to know because I want to pre-order it.

Steve, you're actually in the book, so I'll be happy to send you a copy when it comes out. To answer your question, though, I'm putting it out myself. I had discussions with a couple publishers and spoke to authors who were in positions similar to mine when they put out books. Since I have a reasonably strong presence on the internet already, it didn't make sense to use a traditional publishing company when I'll already be able to promote the book myself.

Bucdaddy: FOX Japan ... still a thing?

Still a thing, new record in May or so.

Bishop1973: If the time to raise payroll is not now, coming off the playoff appearance last year, then when is it? At some point, the "We’ll raise payroll when the time is right" statement just becomes empty words, because they can always kick the can down the road and say that time "just isn’t right." It doesn’t have to be FA signings, but locking up Alvarez/Walker now or getting the jump on extensions for Marte or Cole, for example, would increase payroll as well.

Typically, extensions for pre-free agency players are heavily backloaded to simulate the approximate payouts the player would have gotten in arbitration, so extending Marte, Cole, Alvarez or Walker would only meaningfully increase payroll in future seasons anyway. Cole would be a tough sell (although extending him isn't a possibility we should dismiss just because of who his agent is). Extending Alvarez and Walker would be spending just to spend, in my view. Both players are under control through 2016 anyway, and aren't likely to age well.

Your second sentence is what I'm worried about. If the Pirates aren't going to spend this year, then when will they? With guys like Homer Bailey and Brett Gardner coming off the market early, next year's free agent market doesn't look any better than this one's was. Maybe the Bucs are saving for a huge push in 2017 and 2018, before Andrew McCutchen is set to become a free agent. Maybe the money just isn't there to begin with somehow. I'm not sure.

Maguro: Greg Brown or Tim Neverett? Bob Walk or John Wehner? Lacee Collins or Dan Potash?

I like both Brown and Neverett. I'm glad this came up, because I think the one time I mentioned Brown last year was to call out something I thought he shouldn't have said. Overall, I think he does a great job conveying the dramatic arc of a game. His excitement when something important happens seems unforced, and yet he rarely lets that excitement prevent him from communicating.

Walk has a way of seeming nonplussed without appearing angry, so he was the perfect color guy to have during the streak. And he's often very good at explaining the details of the way ballplayers think about the game. And Dan Potash is just a pro.

Garrett122: What do you really love about baseball?  ... [W]hat is it about the sport that got its hooks in you so deep? Your analysis is generally pretty balanced and unbiased, which is great for objectivity, but doesn’t allow a lot of insight into — pardon the cliché — your love of the game.

Thanks -- I'm glad my analysis seems unbiased. I discuss your core question somewhat in the book. (Buy my book!) I followed baseball as a kid, lost track of the game in high school, and came back to it in college because my freshman roommate got me into Rob Neyer (whose column at ESPN was one of a very small number of good places to read baseball analysis on the internet at the time) and the burgeoning sabermetric movement.

One of the reasons I like baseball is because it's its own complex world, without being a chaotic one. As a writer, you constantly have to look for flaws in your thinking, but you can have principles that guide you, and that you feel fairly confident about. And upon reentering the game as a fan in 1999 or so, I got to learn how to think about the game just as everyone else was re-learning how to think about it. I saw cutting-edge thinking evolve from favoring players like Jeremy Giambi (.414 OBP in 2002, y'all!) to favoring totally different player types like Russell Martin and Starling Marte, and I saw people's thinking change based on things they didn't know before. That fascinated me.

I like baseball itself because it's a quiet game that reminds me of summer. As an introvert, the NFL doesn't suit me, and even if it did, it would remind me that it's Sunday and that the weekend is almost over, or that the weather is getting colder. Baseball starts just as it's beginning to get warm and the school year is about to end. You play it on a grassy, asymmetrical field that ... well, now I'm going to just start paraphrasing George Carlin's baseball routine. There could be an alternate universe where I became a serious basketball fan, or maybe even a hockey fan. If Pittsburgh had had an NBA team, maybe I would have gotten into them. But they didn't, and I ended up with the Pirates.

I don't know how I stuck with the team through the streak. I tried to root for other teams, but it didn't work. So I started writing about the Pirates in 2004, and by 2006 or 2007, when things got really ridiculous, I had 100 or 200 regular readers, which seemed like a good enough reason to keep going.