June 2005

time to make some moves?

We’re still a ways a way from the July 31st trade deadline but I’m starting to think the time might be right for the Pirates to begin making moves now.

The Bucs were given a second chance to make amends with their fans when MLB named Pittsburgh the host city for the 2006 All Star Game. The Pirates blew it the first time when they opened up PNC Park and went on to lose 100 games. The five-year plan was a flop and the team has been trying to recover ever since.

The organization appears to be in a "must-win" mode. The string of consecutive losing seasons has reached an almost unthinkable 12 straight years. The club has to move forward with the idea that victories will outnumber losses by 2006. There can be no excuses.

In order for the Pirates to reach that goal, it seems to me, they must make some difficult decisions.

On his Sunday radio show on June 25th, Dave Littlefield presented us with "locks" at only a few positions for 2006.

Shortstop Jack Wilson and second baseman Jose Castillo are set as the double play combination. Littlefield said the club is happy with the job Humberto Cota has done behind the plate. Jason Bay is certainly the leftfielder for the foreseeable future. Firstbaseman Darlye Ward’s contract is up after this season; as is Matt Lawton’s.

Third baseman Ty Wigginton has not produced like the team had hoped and in center field the club has used both Tike Redman and Rob Mackowiak.

The rotation for 2006 will start with Oliver Perez and the remaining four will probably be chosen from among Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, Dave Williams, Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Sean Burnett and John Van Benschoten.

I have left out Mark Redman because there doesn’t seem to be a reasonable scenario which would bring him back for 2006.  The monkey wrench is the mutual option between Redman and the Pirates. Both parties would have to agree on the team picking up the some $4.5 million dollars for 2006. However, if Redman continues to pitch the way he did for most of his first 15 starts, his agent knows full well that a lefthander with great numbers could land twice as much on the open market than that which is called for in the option year of his contract.

On the flip-side, if Redman does not pitch well and has more games like his first two starts against the Cardinals, the Pirates aren’t going to be willing to pay that same sum for another season.  It appears as though the best option for the Pirates would be to deal the lefthander to a contending team before the deadline and receive some value in return for Redman.  If that were to occur, a spot in the rotation would open up for  lefthander Zach Duke who leads the AAA level in wins this season for the Pirates International League affiliate, the Indianapolis Indians.

Duke in the rotation for an entire half of a major league season would give him and the Pirates a jump-start on the ’06 campaign.  He’s certain to experience a few bumps in the road while pitching in the big leagues but wouldn’t it serve the club better in the long run to have their top lefthanded pitching prospect getting his feet wet THIS season?  It might cost Duke and the Pirates some wins this year but I would bet most fans would take the trade-off for the benefit of next year’s club.

In that regard, perhaps a couple of wholesale changes in the outfield would pay huge dividends for the 2006 Pirates.  It’s becoming more and more apparent that the team is not sold on Tike Redman as their "answer" in centerfield and that Rob Mackowiak’s best role might be as a "super-sub" for the time being.

Between now and the July 31st trade deadline, one must wonder if a club might like to have an experienced left-handed hitter in the person of Matt Lawton. If the Bucs were to move Lawton, they would then be able to get Ryan Doumit the at-bats they so desparately want him to get at the major league level. Who knows?  With a short porch in right field, Doumit might be able to adapt to the outfield while providing the Pirates with some offensive punch from both sides of the plate.

There seems to be little doubt that the only pure centerfielder in the offing for the Pirates is playing at AAA Indianapolis in the person of Chris Duffy.  He put on quite a show in spring training down in Bradenton but the Pirates made a mistake by bringing him to the big leagues earlier this year and not playing him.  The lack of playing time hurt his progress when he was returned to Indy and got off to a very slow start.  By all accounts, he’s playing some of the best centerfield in the minor leagues these days and his average has been around .300 for over the past several weeks.

Two months (August and September) isn’t much time to allow rookies to adjust to the major leagues but, in my opinion, it’s a whole lot better than asking them to perform at a high level when a club leaves their spring training site and begins the regular season.  The quicker these moves are made, the better off the Pirates will be in 2006.

While we’re making big (and exciting) changes to the 2005 Bucs, let’s start grooming a closer for next year!  Jose Mesa has been nothing short of spectacular in his two seasons as the Pirates stopper.  However, at some point, a successor needs to be thrown into the fire.   Contending clubs will be looking for an inexpensive closer soon.  It’s possible they’ll be calling Pittsburgh to inquire of Mesa’s availability.

It’s becoming more and more apparant in baseball that there are plenty of closers out there…. you just have to find them.  The Brewers discoverd Dan Kolb a couple of years ago.  This season, Derrek Turnbow has come out of nowhere. The Cubs tried a handful before settling on Ryan Dempster.  The Nationals have the top closer in the league right now in Chad Cordero. How about B.J.Ryan? You can name a dozen closers who have only recently come on the scene and have enjoyed much success.

The Pirates have that new closer somewhere. Is it Mike Gonzalez? Perhaps. Perhaps not. He didn’t look nearly as unhittable when put in pressure set-up roles this season but that might be due to his sore knee. What about Rick White? He’s done it before  on a handful of occasions with other clubs and, though he doesn’t seem to be your protype closer, he just might be your guy. Perhaps he’s somewhere else. Sometimes clubs have to get creative in these situations. Maybe a guy like Ryan Vogelsong (who has struggled mightily in the starters role and surely doesn’t seem to have the command necessary to pull of the role as stopper) would rise to the challenge and turn into one of the league’s best closers if given that chance. How about Ian Snell?  They say his stuff is electric and he certainly has the demeanor for the job with an air of cockiness and confidence that would fit the mold.

All this is to say that the Pirates look to be at a crossroads.  They don’t seem to have what it takes to challenge for a playoff spot this year and, in order to be ready to contend for something next year (which the fans are practically demanding), some bold moves just might need to be made in the coming weeks or even days.

That’s my two cents on the state-of-the-Bucs. What say you???????

Remembering Dad

I wouldn’t be writing this blog if it weren’t for Dad. It was he who introduced me to major league baseball. I think about him every day wishing he had gotten a chance to see his son broadcasting for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Dad was a Pirates fan growing up in Connellsville, PA just an hours drive east of Pittsburgh. His mother and father and all four siblings grew up big Buccos fans, attending games at Forbes Field and listening to Rosey Roswell and Bob Prince on KDKA radio during the days of Pie Traynor and Max Carey and Paul and LLoyd Waner.

Dad married a girl from nearby Greensburg, PA and, after spending time as a writer for a national sports publication in Chicago, he and Mom  eventually moved to Washington D.C. where she could be closer to her family(Mom’s dad was a congressman).

Dad would go on to become a top lobbyist for the coal industry and though he enjoyed the opportunity to meet often with the country’s top politicians on capitol hill, he became weary of the disturbances around the D.C. area and decided our nations’ capital was no place to raise seven children.

I was eight years old when the family moved to the Harrisburg, PA area. I loved playing sports with my five older brothers and neighborhood buddies but hadn’t found an allegiance toward any professional sports team until one weekend, Dad brought me along on a business trip to Pittsburgh. We stayed at the Hilton hotel and the Golden Triangle in downtown Pittsburgh and we attended a game at the brand new Three Rivers Stadium in the summer of 1970. I was hooked!

For the next seven years, I’d make one trip to Pittsburgh spending time chasing down visiting major leaguers for autographs at the Hilton or the William Penn Hotel and attending a Pirates game at night at Three Rivers Stadium.

Dad loved asking me about the players from whom I had received autographs; and about what I liked best about the game.  He would ask me about my favorite Pirates players (Parker, Moreno, Stargell) and I would recite their statistics and accomplishments.

Dad was pretty excited when, out of high school, I received an internship to work in the Pirates front office. Though he never admitted it to me, I think it surprised him and the rest of my family that this kid from Mechanicsburg, PA would wind up working for a major league baseball team.

I spent ten years in the Pirates front office working in various capacities. Mom and Dad would visit a couple of times each summer. I’d show them around the offices, take them down on the field, and introduce them to various members of the organization.  Dad wasn’t one for showing his emotions but I think he got a kick out of it all!

Later, I’d land a job broadcasting play-by-play for the minor league team in Buffalo, NY.  Over a five year span, I’d eventually broadcast Buffalo Bills football, college hockey and basketball, and host a sports talk show; all the while giving Dad almost daily updates and sending along tapes that would allow him to listen to his son and provide critiques when neccesarry (Dad was a stickler for proper grammar.)

In the summer of 1992, Dad fell ill. It was most difficult on my mother. She knew he wasn’t well but he had always refused to see doctors. He never wanted to be a burden.  She was worried.  I was never aware of the seriousness of his poor health because Dad would always put up a strong front during our phone conversations.

I’ll never forget election night in November of 1992.  We would often discuss politics.  Dad had an amazing knowledge of world events and history and national issues. He was a long-time speechwriter for a handful of congressional leaders in the ’60’s and ’70’s and I was so proud of his association with some of the top politicians of our time.

It was with great interest that I called on election night to get his thoughts on Bill Clinton’s victory over George Bush 41.  I was so anxious to talk to him about where the country was now headed under a new leader.

But our conversation on this night was unusually brief. Dad was having some trouble talking and would try to suppress a cough before handing the phone back over to Mom.  It was our last conversation together. I was in the room with Mom when Dad passed away on December 9, 1992.

During the last couple of hours at his bedside, Mom told me how proud Dad was of my accomplishments.  Dad had never been one to express his emotions to his kids. He didn’t have to say anything…we knew it. And I hope he knew how proud I was of him.

Just a year after his death, I was hired to broadcast major league baseball games for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Dad wasn’t around when I made the call to Mom to give her the news.  She was so excited….. she said Dad was too!

MLB.com’s complete Father’s Day special

To Bunt or Not to Bunt!

Over the last several days, the bunt debate has arisen in Pittsburgh as the Pirates continue to hover near the bottom of the National League in sacrifice hits.

Veteran baseball fans harken back to the "old days" when every player in the lineup knew how to drop down a bunt to move a runner. "Why can’t these guys bunt anymore?" is the question that pops up time and again on the talk shows and in the stands.

I’m a firm believer in bunting a runner over when the opportunity presents itself but only when the opportunity is there for a player who CAN bunt! Power hitters and RBI men are NOT bunters despite what some would have you believe.

I did some research on some former Pirates to find out how often they bunted to prove my point.

Roberto Clemente played 18 seasons with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He amasssed 3,000 hits and was inducted into Baseball’s Hall Of Fame in 1973. He successfully dropped down a sac bunt 36 times over his brilliant career but 12 of those bunts came in his first two years in the major leagues, before he had established himself as real RBI threat. In fact, Clemente was credited with only two sacrifice hits over his last six seasons in the big leagues!

I was also curious to see what Willie Stargell did over his Hall of Fame career. Captain Willie is the Pirates all-time leader in home runs with 475. He actually was asked to bunt nine times over his 21 seasons in the majors but not once did he advance a runner via the bunt over his last 14 years with the Bucs!

Dave Parker’s career numbers stunned me.  I figured, before the Cobra became one of the most feared hitters in baseball, that he would have bunted a few runners over in his early Pirates days but, incredibly, Dave Parker was credited with exactly one sacrifice bunt over his entire 19-year major league career…and that bunt came in his very first season in the big leagues, 1973.

It seems apparent that over the last several decades not a whole lot has changed when it comes to the bunt.  Players who could handle the bat and COULD bunt, were asked to perform that task. Those who were considered the run producers and RBI guys were not.

Former Pirates shortstop, Tim Foli, who helped lead the Pirates to the 1979 World Series Championship, sacrifice bunted 169 times over his 16-year major league career. Jay Bell, who followed Foli as one the Pirates most dependable shortstops, dropped down 159 sac bunts over his 18 seasons in the big leagues.

Bill Mazeroski, best remembered for the game-winning home run in 1960 to beat the Yankees and for his unparalleled defense at second base, had 87 sacrifice hits over 17 years.  Al Oliver, a doubles machine over his years as an outfielder/first baseman covering 18 years in the majors bunted 17 times but only twice over his last five years!

How about one of the great power-hitters in Pirates history, Ralph Kiner? Kiner spent ten seasons in the major leagues, eight with the Buccos, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1975. He ranks second on the Pirates all-time home run list. Kiner sacrifice bunted nine times (interestingly enough, five of those nine bunts came in one season: 1954 with the Chicago Cubs, his second-to-last season in the majors.)

Since the current Pirates manager, Lloyd McClendon has what appears to be a more "American League" philosophy about the sacrifice bunt (don’t give up an out unless it is absolutley necessary) I thought it might be interesting to see how often Mac bunted over his eight seasons in the big leagues…how about FOUR!  Once each in 1988, 1989, 1992 and 1993.

So, what do you think about the sacrifice bunt?  Is it used enough "these days?"  Do the players who should know how to bunt, succeed? 

To bunt or not to bunt… THAT is the question!!