Saturday, July 31, 2010

Misjudging Paul Maholm's Value

At the trade deadline the biggest problem is that everyone, from General Managers to fans, generally overvalues his own assets. General managers want to hit a home run in most trades and never want to get taken. As a result there are many more rumors than actual deals. Fans are told about their team's prospects from the day they are signed, follow them for years. When one is traded, the fan often get irrationally upset. Conversely, proven major leaguers have tangible value to the average fan. If that fan's team trades a veteran and gets back a prospect the fan has never seen or heard of, he'll think it's as a salary dump or that his team's GM got duped.

While the above scenarios certainly do occur, it's the irrational arguments and player evaluations that really kill me. I don't mean to be on the Post-Gazette's writers, but Bob Smizik's article yesterday touched a nerve and now it's Dejan Kovacevic. This morning in PG+ he wrote about a possible trade of Paul Maholm:
The rest of this season is not important in terms of the standings, but advancing the cause of the younger position players is critically important. They have nothing to gain from the brains-beaten-in scenario, not collectively or individually. At the same time, they have everything to gain from doing some kind of winning.

Trust me on the latter. I have spent a fair amount of time with the three main kids on this trip, and these guys love it when the Pirates win, hate it when they lose.
First, he's right about the rest of the season not being about the standings, but about the development of the young guys. I think we all agree on that. I'm not sure what "advancing the cause of the younger position players" means, but I'll assume it's a good thing. But, how exactly is a Paul Maholm going to effect that? Let's take a look.

In Maholm's last nine starts the team is 2-7 and he is 2-5. Included in his last seven starts are these three outings:

1 IP, 7 hits, 7 runs, 5 earned, 4 BB, 0 K  Final Score: 13-3

3 IP, 10 hits, 8 runs, 7 earned, 2 BB, 1 K  Final Score: 12-4

5.1 IP, 11 hits, 8 runs, 8 earned, 3 BB, 3 K  Final Score: 9-3

Talk about about getting your brains beaten in. All three games were basically over by the third inning. When Kovacevic waxes poetic about stuff like this or veteran leadership or other things that don't align with actual performance, it drives me crazy. Maholm is going to make 12 more starts this year. He may make a marginal difference of one win, maybe two, versus the pitchers the Pirates would use to fill those starts if Maholm is traded. I think it's better to stay with the facts and not some vision of Paul Maholm, dominating pitcher.

Kovacevic writes that a Maholm trade "has to bring the Pirates some pitching back." This is not true.  As always the team should seek the best and highest value return possible, pitching or not. Yes the 2011 starting rotation is a huge issue. A trade of Paul Maholm isn't going to solve it and may in the short-term make it even more of an issue. But let's be clear about one thing, Paul Maholm's impact in "advancing the cause of the younger position players" the rest of this season is going to be the same whether he's wearing a Pirates uniform or someone else's.

Smizik Incites Masses, Riots Imminent

Bob Smizik is a long-time sports columnist in Pittsburgh. He recently retired and now writes an on-line blog. For the record, I like Bob Smizik. Hold on, don't kill me yet. Bob's a good guy. He's seen a lot. I've interviewed him on the radio and he's a great guest because he's opinionated and articulate. But, Bob seems to get his kicks these days by killing the hometown Pirates every chance he gets. This may be done to incite the masses and get more hits and comments on his blog, and if so, it's working. But I think he's so far off the mark on this one I wanted to respond.

His latest post is titled "Trading Maholm Reeks of Salary Dump."

First, as I write this, Maholm hasn't been traded. He might be soon, but it hasn't happened yet. He obviously wasn't traded when Bob wrote his piece either. The headline is a good start toward inflaming the masses.

In the article Bob quotes Neal Huntington, the last line is, "Again we will need to feel good about the return to make a move." Right. As I have argued, every guy on the team is/should be available if the price is right--from Andrew McCutchen on down. If the trade improves the organization, make it, fans be damned. Now I'm willing to concede there is a PR aspect and entertainment aspect to all of this and trading someone like Cutch would be a colossal PR mistake, but it isn't currently on the table so let's not belabor the point.

Trading Paul Maholm is on the table, so let's review some of the facts. Maholm is in his age 28 season. He's been very durable, pitching at least 175 innings the last four seasons. He has a career record of 44-53 while pitching for very bad teams. His career ERA+ is 97. He's a pitch-to-contact lefty, striking out only 5.5 per 9, while walking 3.2. This year he is making $4.5 million. Next year he will make $5.75 million. In 2012 the club has a $9.75 million option with a $750,000 buyout if not exercised. Those are the facts.

Maholm is exactly the guy you would love to have be your fourth or fifth starter. He can be very good at times and he has been reasonably consistent throughout his career. That is exactly why other teams are interested. If he is a team's fourth starter they probably have a pretty good staff. The Pirates problem is he is their best starter. The issue the Pirates face is that they already have a very weak starting staff. Finding a replacement for Maholm next year at his price will be difficult, but not impossible. For every Brett Myers or Carl Pavano there are 10 Randy Wolfs or Ben Sheets.

Smizik writes, "The statement is curious because Huntington repeatedly has said the team was beyond the prospect accumulation mode." True, NH has said things like this, but that doesn't mean the Pirates wouldn't trade for another ever again. If the team could acquire a top-flight SS prospect for Maholm I'm sure they would do it in a second.

He backpedals a bit, saying:
If that is the case, and since Maholm won't be eligible for free agency until after 2012, a trade sounds more like a salary dump than anything else.
I'm not saying that is the case, and I'd like to hear more from Huntington on this. But if the team is planning on trading Maholm, I would think the $9.75 million he is due in 2012 would be the largest reason.
Okay, Maholm is NOT due, $9.75 million in 2012. He is due $750K if the Pirates decide not to exercise their option. If they do exercise it, it will be because he has pitched very well. If that is the case, the price may look like a bargain and certainly they could look to trade him at the deadline if the team is out of contention.

Where Bob is correct, and the big issue is, what will the worst rotation in the majors look like minus its best pitcher? The right answer, for the rest of this season is, "Who cares?" We are talking about 12 starts on a 57-67 win team. A trade gives the organization an opportunity to further evaluate Daniel McCutchen, Brad Lincoln, Charlie Morton and possibly D.J. Carrasco. (I think Carrasco should get 3-5 starts in September regardless. If he is good, give him a chance to compete for a starting job in spring training. If not, he is a worthwhile bullpen piece at the $1.5 million or so he will make next year.)

The starting staff in 2011 is the team's biggest problem. The cavalry is on the horizon, but State College is a long way from PNC and Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie haven't even inked their contracts yet. Lincoln, Bryan Morris, Rudy Owens and Jeff Locke will probably all be around and ready by 2012. Donald Veal, Kevin Hart and Jose Ascanio should all be back next year and will certainly get a look. But the Pirates will have to do something to augment Ross Ohlendorf and Zach Duke (who I have contended all along is likely to get traded) if he isn't moved or non-tendered.

The Pirates should absolutely move Maholm (and Duke) if it is a good baseball move. If prospects are what comes back, so be it. Just make sure to get the best long-term return possible. Again, we aren't trading Whitely Ford. We are offering a major league-average starting pitcher that has cost certainty and has proven to be durable. Maholm is reasonably cheap next year. That contract adds to his value.
We might see how valuable it is in the next 24 hours.

One thing I feel most certain about, a trade would not be a salary dump. And if we do trade Paul Maholm, maybe he can come back and be our fourth or fifth starter three years from now at age 31. Wouldn't that be great if the Pirates had three or four pitchers who could make an average major league starter be just another guy.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The Assassin, Dead. The Immaculate Reception, Immortal.

Jack Tatum was an integral player in two of professional football's most well-known plays. I saw the first live, the second on television. Both plays epitomized exactly the type of player Tatum was, though neither had the outcome he desired.

The Immaculate Reception is arguably football's most famous single play. It occurred in 1972 as I was closing in on the age of eight. Back then my family* shared four season tickets to the Pittsburgh Steelers, but for this game my father was invited to sit in a corporate box to entertain clients for work.  Lucky for me that work function was sans spouse. As far as I could tell two tickets were up for allocation. My begging and pleading carried the day, and my mother and I went down to Three Rivers Stadium for my first playoff game. This wasn't just my first playoff game, it was everybody's first playoff game--coaches, players and fans. The Steelers were a notoriously bad franchise, think Pirates of today, and they hadn't sniffed the playoffs since 1947.

*When I say family, I mean my father. He was one of four guys who shared four tickets to the seven home games.  Occasionally they would all go together, but more often they would split the tickets up so each guy got two to a certain number of games.  Like the other guys, my dad would usually take his wife, my mother, with his second ticket. Then I came along and became interested in sports. I was the first child in the group to impinge upon the setup, but fortunately my mother didn't want to go all the time so I got to go on occasion. I figured I cared more than the other three guys, so I should be going anyway.

Defense carried the day in the '70s and the Steelers had one of the best. They led 6-0 with less than two minutes left and I was certain they were going to win. I was certain they were going to win every game back then. Then Kenny Stabler, who had come into replace Daryle Lamonica (intercepted twice and sacked four times), did the unthinkable. On a busted play Stabler broke around left end and ran 30 yards for a touchdown. From where I was sitting, in section 647 near the top of the stadium, I could see it all unfold like it was in slow-motion. I could tell when he broke contain he might score. I think my eyes were wet by the time he got to the ten. When he was celebrating with his teammates amongst the dead silence of 55,000 tears were streaming down my face. The Steelers were down 7-6.

Pittsburgh got the ball back on their own forty yard line, but all was lost as three incompletions made it 4th and 10 with only :22 seconds left. On fourth down Steeler QB Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass, looking for Barry Pearson. Nothing there. He scrambled and threw down field to John "Frenchy" Fuqua. Jack Tatum and the ball arrived at Fuqua with the firmness and precision of a good handshake, assuming Tatum's hand was that of an 800 pound gorilla. All three objects separated and the ball fell harmlessly......into the outstretched fingertips of an on-rushing Franco Harris. Harris scrambled down the sidelines and into immortality.

Did Harris catch it before it touched the ground? It appears so, but film of the play is not conclusive. Did the ball hit Fuqua or Tatum before Harris caught it? Uncler, but according to the rules of the day, if it was Fuqua, the catch should have been disallowed. Were the refs more concerned about their safety after the touchdown then getting the call right? They should have been. The call stood. The Steelers won. And I can honestly say I was there......crying like a seven year old and then as happy as I could ever remember.


The other play involving Jack Tatum didn't have a happy ending for anyone. In a 1978 preseason game Tatum, know as the Assassin for his crushing blows, laid out Darryl Stingley as he was leaping for a pass. Tatum hit Stingley with his forearm in the head-on collision and knocked him unconscious.  The hit severed Stingley's fourth and fifth vertebrae and left him paralyzed from the waist down for the rest of his life. (Stingley died in 2007.) Although controversial, the hit was not a violation of NFL rules at the time and no penalty was called on the play.

The two men never spoke before Stingley's death, with Tatum saying he was continually rebuffed by members of Stingley's family. The Assassin never apologized for the hit. As Jason Cole reported in a 2007 article, Jack always said "I don't think I did anything wrong that I need to apologize for. It was a clean hit."

Jack Tatum was a two-time unanimous All American at Ohio St. University.  He was selected as the National Defensive Player of the Year in 1970 and was among the leading vote-getters for the Heisman Trophy. He was a first round draft pick in the 1971 NFL Draft and was voted to the Pro Bowl three times. He won the Super Bowl as a member of the 1976 Oakland Raiders.  He was elected to the College Football Hall of Fame in 2005.

Jack Tatum died yesterday of a massive heart attack at the age of 61. (NY Times obituary)

Monday, July 26, 2010

Unlucky 13 and What Could Be Next

Sunday Lance Armstrong rode into Paris with the peloton, completing his thirteenth and last Tour de France. He created a controversy at the beginning of the stage by having his RadioShack team don black jerseys with a NFL-style 28 on the back to recognize the millions living with cancer. Race officials, having no knowledge that Armstrong's team planned to wear the jerseys, forced a change. This delayed the start, generating huge publicity and even more controversy over the seven-time champion's motives. Undoubtedly Lance Armstrong knew how all of this would play out well-beforehand. That may be the last act he gets to choreograph.

What Lance Armstrong doesn't know, what none of us know, is what legacy he leaves behind as he exits the high-profile stage he has held sway over for so long. One would naturally assume that a cancer survivor who went on to become a seven-time Tour de France champion, one who has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for cancer research, would leave nothing less than a legacy of unrivaled cycling dominance while at the same time generating the unmatched goodwill that follows those who perform such wonderful charitable deeds.  It's the fairy tale story come to life. Unfortunately for Lance, that actually being his real-life legacy is the fairy tale.

The thirty-eight year old Armstrong didn't captivate just cycling fans, he reached a larger audience. It was an audience he cultivated through the years. They were inspired by his battle with cancer, his charisma, his celebrity lifestyle and, of course, his Michael Jordan-like dominance of cycling. It was an audience that adored him, for a time. But apparently that time may now have passed. If not, it's at least up for renewal. And there are no guarantees because Armstrong's adoring fanbase has grown increasingly suspicious of the endless allegations surrounding him.

Steroids and PEDs have overwhelmed the sporting landscape since Ben Johnson won Olympic gold in the 100 meters in the Seoul Olympics in 1988.  The breadth and depth of it didn't fully hit the American public until the continued allegations and revelations around baseball in the early twenty-first century, but it has been a visible part of sporting competition all the way back to the East German women swimmers of the early 1970s. Cycling has a rich history of doping.  Pot Belge, synthetic testosterone and EPO are just a few of the illegal substances that racers have used while avoiding detection. In the endless game of cat and mouse, athletes get ahead and then testing becomes more sophisticated and athletes get caught. Then the pendulum swings back the other way. Through it all Lance Armstrong has never failed a drug test.

But after years of accusations throughout Europe, Lance Armstrong is now going to face the music on American soil. Floyd Landis, a former teammate of Armstrong's and admitted user of PEDs has charged Armstrong of the same, and the Federal Government has convened a grand jury to look into the allegations. Landis, whose credibility is highly questionable due to years of lying about his own use, recently said on "Nightline", "Rather than go into the entire detail of every single time I've seen it. Yes. I saw Lance Armstrong using drugs." Add Greg LeMond's accusations and you have a an American cycling soap opera that is some kind of cross between Survivor and Gossip Girl. LeMond, three-time Tour winner as well as the first American ever to win the event, has had a long, on-going feud with Armstrong and, upon being subpoenaed in this case, said he looked forward to testifying on July 30th.  He told the Denver Post, "The evidence will come from the investigation, and I believe it will be overwhelming."

Lance Armstrong's legacy hinges on the outcome of the investigation. Is it possible that anyone could win seven straight Tours while so many of the sport's elite were using PEDs? When Secretariat, the fabled Triple Crown winning horse, died, the autopsy showed that he had a heart much larger than any other horse. Does Lance have some trait or attribute that has allowed him to survive cancer and also be better than any other cyclist, even when those others were cheating? Maybe, but I wouldn't bet on it.

Through it all Armstrong has almost always been a picture of composure. How can he be so confident, so collected if so many people out there have the goods on his PED use? How can he sleep at night when there are literally hundreds of people looking to bring him down? We've seen the denials before. Marion Jones, Rafael Palmeiro. Roger Clemens. All gave impassioned defenses of their innocence. None held up over time. The list isn't endless it just appears that way.

Lance Armstong would be the biggest name on that list. Ever. He took a third-tier sport and thrust it into the spotlight. He became as well-known and famous as any American athlete. He used his fame for good in an extraordinary way. Now it's all up for review. Do his charitable works cement his legacy as a great man regardless of the findings of this case or is he another fraud of an athlete that gets cast aside and written out of the history books if found guilty? If everyone was involved, as many claim, isn't he still the best and most deserving? Regardless of the result, the case won't be pretty. Testimony will be leaked and Armstrong is going to suffer in the court of public opinion.

In America we often like to see our heroes fall. It makes them more like us. We can be empathetic and sympathetic and forgiving, and then we can root for them to achieve again, knowing that there is a chink in their armor. It will be interesting to see if Armstrong can ride through the storm one more time. Unfortunately I think this one is going to be like his 13th Tour. Unlucky.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Down goes Huggins

Bob Huggins, the basketball coach at West Virginia, fell in his hotel room in Las Vegas Friday, breaking four ribs. I found this odd. I once cracked four ribs in my college dorm room. I was getting out of my loft at 7:00 AM one morning before a preseason soccer practice.  The guy who built the loft had yet to build the ladder so I was using a chair, a desk and another chair on top of the desk as a makeshift ladder. I had gotten up and down a couple of times without incident so I wasn't paying much attention as I leaned off the edge of the loft to step onto the chair on the desk.  It didn't go as planned.  The chair slid.  Next thing I know I am tumbling forward.  Eight feet down in the pike position onto the back of the chair on the ground.  Ouch!

I'm curious as to how the fifty-six year old Bob Huggins did it.  I fell from eight feet onto a chair.  I'm comfortable making the assumption Huggins' hotel room didn't have a loft.  So, how exactly did Huggins manage?  People fall all the time. Sometimes they bang their head or occasionally break an arm or wrist, but ribs?  A former basketball player Huggins is a big guy and reasonably athletic.  The story being sold is that he tripped on something on the floor of his room and slammed into a coffee table. The fact that it took place in Vegas leads me to believe that's probably not how it went down.

And there's this pic. That's Bob a year ago at a fantasy basketball banquet, sporting two shiners. On that occasion he allegedly stepped into the edge of a bathroom door late one night. That's one mean-ass door.

Huggins was supposed to be released from the hospital Saturday, but is being kept longer for observation. There isn't any treatment for broken ribs, so I'm not sure why Bob's still in the hospital, but let's hope he gets out soon. Love him or hate him he definitely makes the sports world a more interesting place. And, we can start wagering on what piece of home furnishing is going to get him next.

UPDATE: Apparently Huggins has seven broken ribs.  That's one mean-ass coffee table, too.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Gang of Four

4-2 since the All-Star break, the Pirates have outscored opponents 50-26.  It's only a few games, but there is finally a glimmer of hope.  The four guys below are providing much of it. Lastings Milledge is included because of the tear he's been on since June and manager John Russell's decision to re-anoint him a starting outfielder.
Jose Tabata


Pedro Alvarez

Lastings Milledge

June 1-Present

To state the obvious, if these guys put up full-season numbers similar to their numbers in July a lot of good things are going to happen. Here are my takes: warning SSS alert.
--Jose Tabata. At age 21 Tabata is off to a great start. Throw in the nine stolen bases and reasonably good defense in left and he has exceeded everyone's expectations coming into the season. I didn't think he would or should come up this year. Wrong. He's clearly ready. The question is what kind of power he will develop.
--Neil Walker. Walker is 25 in September and regardless of the outcome, this was a crucial year for his career. I don't think even he would have written such a successful story line coming out of spring training. Yes, it's 25% of the season, 180 plate appearances, but wow. He has hit line drives all over the field and has been excellent defensively at second base, even before taking into account his inexperience. His athleticism gives him a chance to be an elite defender in my view.
The small negatives are his K/BB rate and his platoon split, but that may be a function of a hugely skewed babip from each side. Second base is clearly Walker's job now.
--Pedro Alvarez. On draft day if you were asked to draw Alvarez's career timeline going forward, this is exactly how you would have drawn it. Reach the majors in May/June 2010 after the requisite stops along the way. Hitting four home runs in two days conjures visions of forty bombs a year into Pedro's Porch. His defense is serviceable. He'll be fine at third for 3-5 years. Obviously if the Pirates develop a stud third baseman the move to first could come earlier.  He isn't going to hurt the team in the field in the interim. Pitch recognition and plate discipline seem to be improving before our eyes.
Seeing the early career struggles of uber-prospects like Matt Wieters and Justin Smoak should put up a big caution sign, but the rate of improvement since day one has been visible and dramatic. Early read: Exactly what we hoped.
--Lastings Milledge. Thrilledge. I'm officially on board. Milledge is 25 and like Walker, if not this year, his career may have started to pass him by. By no means is it a done deal, but he has been terrific of late. Home run totals are low, but his slugging percentage since June 1 (added to the chart) shows that he is definitely driving the ball. Defensively, moving to right makes life easier and his routes seem to have improved as well.
For the season he is right around his career numbers so it's important not to jump the gun based on the last six weeks, but he has performed better during this stretch than any other extended period of his career. As with Tabata, power is a concern and it will be interesting to see if he maintains his slugging percentage and if he hits ten homers on the season.
Overview: Going into the break on a six game skid with the bullpen, the season's lone bright spot to that point, blowing two of the leads didn't portend a great second half. Nobody saw this offensive explosion coming.
First, at least now we no longer have to listen to the ridiculous quips about run differential and "if they continue on this pace......" If you get blown out a bunch of times early in the year, things get skewed. Throw in twenty more losses and the numbers are bad. But, it was virtually impossible that the "pace" was going to continue. Now it's a non-issue.
Second, the starting pitching is still a HUGE concern. Since the break the team is 4-2 and they've gotten one great start, three average starts and two disasters. They won both disasters. The bats aren't going to remain this hot.
Third, it still isn't about wins and losses, but it's more fun to win. It's all about the development of these guys. So far so good. Andrew McCutchen is a budding superstar. Garrett Jones continues to be fine. Catcher and shortstop are open positions going forward. Ronny Cedeno has a chance to keep the job, but I think he will have to be very good second half to do so. Ryan Doumit is a huge question mark and now concussion issues bring his ability to stay behind the plate into play. (UPDATE: Doumit was placed on the DL tonight with a concussion.)
Fourth, the trade deadline is again going to be interesting. Paul MaholmEvan Meek and Joel Hanrahan are the only guys I think will bring a top flight return and I'm undecided whether we should trade any of them. Obviously it depends on what the team would get. Starting pitching and shortstop will be targeted. The concern in moving Maholm is the need to replace him. Next year, through free agency, it will be hard to find someone of equal value for his $5.75 million salary and one year option. He fits the plan now and his contract is an asset.
The organization is chalk of young pitchers. The addition of Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie will mean it is officially loaded, with the caveat that most are a long way from the majors. Bryan Morris and Rudy Owens are closest to the bigs and they may not arrive until 2012. The good news: By 2012 "the pipline" that Neal Huntington has talked about should be in place. The bad news: Charlie MortonKevin HartDaniel McCutchenJose Ascanio and Donald Veal, among others, are going to have to come through if the team is not able to acquire pitching in a trade or through free agency. And it's important to remember when looking to sign free agent starters in the off-season, two years from now there may be a group of guys ready, with more on the way. Matching the team's needs with a player's wants may be more difficult than one might initially think.  The Pirates may not want to sign anyone to more than a two year deal, similar to Ray Shero's philosophy about role players with the Penguins.  That approach may substantially shrink the pool of players available.
All the team's other relievers will certainly be made available, but bringing most of them back next year is not a bad option. Again, it all depends on what is offered.
Hard to believe 34-60 could be this interesting.