Saturday, June 13, 2009

#125: Penguins (Championship) Post-Mortem

---Pens Dig a Little Deeper---

Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even. -- Mohammad Ali

I was wrong. But not by much.

"Wings in Seven" was the official prediction here, albeit with a whole bunch of caveats, readily acknowledging that the Penguins had about an equal shot.

After watching six very entertaining and tightly-contested hockey games (Game Five not included, of course), I have just a few thoughts that you might not find anywhere else. If you're reading this, you probably have already read the same stuff in a bajillion different places by now.

1) A hockey fan could not have honestly asked for a more even series.

Detroit had slight edges in a lot of areas, including Shots on Goal (which you should know by now is a highly-valued statistic around here), winning the shots battle 4 out of the 7 games, winning (and in a couple of cases outright crushing) the face-off battle in 4 of the 7 contests (tied in one of the other three).

Bad calls were few, but they evened out. Non calls were numerous, but they also evened out. Hit posts/crossbars eventually evened out. And it made for one of the most exciting series in any sport this decade.

Either team could have won this series in a four-game sweep. Any of the Penguin wins could have gone to Detroit. It was, as noted a couple weeks ago, that close.

I still think that Detroit is the better team overall, but not by a margin that would constitute 2009's outcome a "fluke". The Penguins winning last season would have been just that. They weren't ready.

In this case, the Penguins were just better at the right times to put them over the edge. And with questions about the health of Hart Trophy candidate Pavel Datysuk all series long (and his absence through the first four games), a different outcome could have certainly come about.

2) The above helps to illustrate how truly even the Eastern and Western conferences were this season. The best teams in the West were better than the East's best, but their worst teams were worse, too.

This equates to better overall teams in the West, but more battle testing in the East.

Goals scored, shots taken...a myriad of statistics over an 82-game regular season were very close between both of hockey's hemispheres.

Having a Game 7 come down to the final seconds between the each conference's best was not just intoxicating to behold, it was almost inevitable.

3) To Penguin fans: Just as in my Superbowl XLIII post, prepare for the fallout.

For many Detroit fans, losing this series would be akin to the Steelers losing a Superbowl to a team that was viewed as vastly inferior, but, in reality, pretty close.

The talk of referee favoritism and/or Commissioner interference will abound.

Do not respond to the Clueless. You only fuel their fire and increase your own blood pressure.

And we should have plenty of practice at this as Pittsburgh fans. The Clueless in Seattle and Arizona (and probably, more commonly, Steeler haters) have been trying to illegitimize championships for a few years now, all told.

This is no different, and all their ranting and railing will not make their claims of shenanigans true.


Concentrate on the sporadic analytical and grudgingly complimentary posts you see on message boards.

4) In what I view to be a full validation of a post eleven months ago in which I said Mike Lange belongs in radio despite a multitude of fans who want him back in television, I give you this:

If Mike Lange were no longer on the radio side, this championship call would have been made by Paul Steigerwald. I say again that Steigerwald is a fine announcer, but he's viewed by most as "that other guy" who calls Penguins games (even though most people know his name).

Steigerwald's broadcast season ended after the Conference semi-finals as Versus and NBC had exclusive rights of the Conference and Cup Final rounds.

And with the NHL broadcasts available online for free, sometimes streaming live if you can find them, a large contingent of Pens fans can enjoy at least one more Cup-winning call from the legendary broadcaster.

If Lange were paid on radio what he'd be paid on TV, I'm sure he would be more than happy to stay on the radio side.

5) I am anxious to see what the future holds for these Penguins.

I do know that if the Penguins had qualified for the playoffs while Michel Therrien was at the team's helm, it would have been only barely.

Dan Bylsma's forechecking, puck-possession, pucks-to-the-net system was the difference, and this team was able to win it all after having about four months to practice it.

They were able to topple the mighty Detroit Red Wings by beating them at their own game...a game they have been playing for years.

The Penguins already had top-notch talent, but it was not even close to enough to overcome Detroit's system in 2008.

Now, Pittsburgh has top-notch talent, and a top-notch system.

With more practice, and the ability of general manager Ray Shero to keep the core of the team together, we could be looking at the next great dynasty in professional hockey.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

#124: Building a Team vs. Cutting Costs

---McClouth = Three Prospects?---

This post comes with a disclaimer:

Until a consistent competitor emerges, one should view all personnel moves by the Pittsburgh Pirates as a way to make the team more profitable.

On Wednesday, June 3, the Pirates dealt All-Star and Gold Glove center fielder Nate McClouth to the Atlanta Braves for three minor leaguers (only one of whom has any major league experience).

Pirate fans once again lashed out in blogs, on message boards, on radio programs as to how the front office has no interest in bringing a winner to Pittsburgh. This September will almost certainly see the franchise set the all-time mark for consecutive losing seasons in North American professional sports.

Yet I feel I have to play Devil's Advocate for a while.

It was around the time that Neal Huntington took over as Pirates General Manager that I personally decided the question wasn't, "Will the Pirates end the string of losing seasons before it sets a new record?"

Instead, I've asked, "What will the record be once the string does end? Seventeen? Eighteen? Twenty? Twenty-five?"

With the depressing inevitability of setting the dubious precendent looming, and with a minor league system in shambles, I decided to adjust my own view of the Pirates rebuilding as if the losing streak was not an item.

To explain my dual stance on the McClouth trade, I'll provide you with some (occasionally painful) reminders of some trades that have been.

While most Pirate fans disapprove of the McClouth trade, it is, by far, not the most infamous trade in the last decade. That distinction rests squarely with former GM Dave Littlefield trading Aramis Ramirez, Kenny Lofton and Randall Simon to the Chicago Cubs for Bobby Hill, Jose Hernandez, Matt Bruback and Ray Sadler.

Where are they now? Ramirez is a star in Chicago, Lofton has gone on to help other teams compete for playoff berths, and Simon played for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic. Meanwhile, at last report, Hill plays for a minor league team in the Atlantic League, Hernandez was already an older player and struck out a lot while he played (I don't think he plays organized baseball anymore...correct me if you know differently), Bruback was claimed off waivers by San Diego less than a month after the trade (and no one noticed), and Sadler still plays in the minor leagues...for Tampa Bay.

At the time, for that trio, we should have been able to plunder a good percentage of their farm system. A "you win now, we win later" mentality. But, if not for the trade the way it went down, Littlefield probably isn't employed right now.

It was an absolutely abysmal deal, immediately and ever after. And it wasn't the last of its kind.

This is why I think this management staff, even if their goal is only to make money, is making a good showing of how to rebuild a franchise.

Flash forward to moves made by the current front office. When Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte were sent to the New York Yankees, the Pirates got three pitchers and a minor league outfielder. Two of those pitchers, Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens, represent the bottom two-fifths of the Pirates' starting rotation. They have a combined record of 7-8, which isn't terrible considering that their ERAs are 4.85 and 5.30, respectively.

The other pitcher, Daniel McCutchen, has similar numbers through 10 starts at Triple-A Indianapolis. That's not necessarily promising for a promotion.

The outfielder, Jose Tabata, is batting .250 with only three extra-base hits with Double-A Altoona. Not playing like a top-tier prospect in my evaluation, but he may also be suffering some emotional fallout from the situation with his wife abducting a baby.

Jason Bay ended up going to Boston in a three-way deal that brought the Pirates outfielder Brandon Moss, infielder Andy LaRoche, pitchers Craig Hansen, and Bryan Morris to the club.

The first three have already played for the Pirates. Moss is currently hitting over .250, and LaRoche over .300, but they have hit just three home runs combined. Hansen had a poor end of 2008 with the Pirates, and the beginning of 2009 wasn't much better. Before he went on the DL, he had an ERA of 5.68 and a WHIP of 1.58.

Bryan Morris was considered a top prospect in the Dodgers organization. He has not played yet this season according to the Lynchburg Hillcats' website because he's been on the disabled list.

In those trades, three Pirates were traded for eight minor leaguers, at least five of whom were major league ready.

Those are the kinds of baseball trades that can truly help to rebuild an organization.

One would hope, however, that one or two of these major leaguers would be close to producing like Jason Bay or Xavier Nady (or the pitching equivalent thereof, whatever that would be). That, so far, has not been the case.

Another thing should be considered, as well: the farm system is only one thing that needs to be rebuilt.

A fair percentage of major league management does not take the Pirates seriously.

This was the fault, at least in part, of Littlefield demanding too much from other teams approaching the trade deadline and being nonchalantly shrugged off. Then, at the zero-hour, he'd cave to pretty much whatever trade was offered. Oftentimes, it was a one-for-one deal. The major league starter Kip Wells being traded to the Texas Rangers for minor league reliever Jesse Chavez comes to mind.

Offering trades that seem to be fair could help erode the opinion that the Pirates are unrealistic. Holding firm on certain deals and not settling for "whatever" could dispel the thought the Pirates are pushovers.

With all of the above in mind, it's time to put the McClouth deal into perspective.

When a terrible organization needs to make moves to get better, they can't deal players with no value. They have to trade established players while their stock is high in order to get maximum return. Bay was doing well, Nady was doing well, and Marte was doing well when they were all traded, and multiple prospects came to the organization (the quality debate is an issue left to their scouting department and/or their office of player development).

The same happened this week. McClouth was performing at a high level. He led the team in home runs and RBIs when he was traded. Still, compared with last season, many of his statistics were down (batting average, on-base percentage), especially when you consider his hot start last year and where he was as of June 3, 2008. He appears to be on pace to exceed last year's home run total of 26, but at one point last season, he looked to be on track to hit 40 dingers.

Trading McClouth at this time might very well have been the best. If he would have a post-All-Star break slide this year, he might not have attracted anyone's interest...including his fans.

Now, to the acqusitions -

Pitcher Charlie Morton. He had an inauspicous start to his major league in a brief stint with the Braves last year, pitching 74.2 innings and compiling a record of 4-8 with an ERA of 6.15. He also walked 41, while striking out only 48.

This season in Triple-A, however, he appears ready to try again. He has a 7-2 record and a 2.26 ERA, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio is vastly improved: 62-17. His only start with the Indianapolis Indians so far was a seven-inning stint where he gave up no runs, allowing four hits and a walk and punching out seven.

How that will translate to major league hitters is another question.

Outfielder Gorkys Hernandez. Just what the Pirates need...another outfielder. Last time I checked, when Jack Wilson isn't in the line up, we get stuck with Brian Bixler for a while who is average defensively (at best) and a liability at the plate. I'm thinking next time we try to obtain a middle infielder.

Anyway, to the actual player. He was considered a top Braves prospect who hits for average more than power (.303 average in AA this year, but no home runs), but he has struck out 57 times so far in 240 plate appearances. Some contend that striking out a ton in the minors is generally a bad sign for the majors. His defense seems like it could be good, however. He has only one error in 55 games in his first year at Double-A.

Pitcher Jeff Locke. He pitches at the High-A level, but it hasn't been overwhelming by any stretch. For Atlanta's Myrtle Beach team, he had a 1-4 record with a 5.52 ERA, although last month he was voted the Carolina league's pitcher of the week.

Really, it's too early to judge how Mr. Locke will work out.

In sum, the trades made by the Pirates the last two seasons seem to at least try to provide the team with a couple of things it seemingly ignored under the previous leadership: options and depth.

If Neal Huntington is truly a genius in disguise, we won't begin to see it until at least 2011.

Until then, though, I can at least appreciate that this is how I thought things should have been run in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The fact that this strategy is about ten years late doesn't help the already-ailing Pirate fan base.

All that said, I will need to see the consistent success for myself before I begin to truly buy into it. In the meantime, I remind my small, but loyal readership:

Don't go to the games.