Monday, July 27, 2009

The Curious Case of Neal Huntington

Last Wednesday afternoon, shortly before the Pirates were to play the Brewers at PNC Park, there was a buzz around the clubhouse that Adam LaRoche (pictured to the left) was being traded. Sure enough, the Pirates shortly later announced that LaRoche was traded to the Red Sox for a Double AA shortstop, Argenis Diaz and Single A RHP Hunter Strickland. LaRoche, a free agent after this season was hitting .247 with 12 homers and 40 RBIs. The last three seasons, LaRoche averaged 26 HRs and 88 RBIs.

Now I don't have a problem with LaRoche being traded. The Pirates are a small market team, and LaRoche is going to be a free agent. Thus, they needed to trade him. But I have two questions for the Pirates.

1) Since LaRoche was going to be a free agent at the end of the season, why didn't they trade him sooner and keep Nate McLouth instead? Nate McLouth (pictured here) was signed in February of this season to a three year 15.75 million dollar contract with an option for 2012. Pretty reasonable for an all star hitting outfielder who had 26 HRs, 93 RBIs, 113 runs scored and 23 steals in 2008 and won't turn 28 till October.

Yet the Pirates traded McLouth to the Braves in the beginning of June for pitchers Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke and Gorkys Hernandez. What was the reason behind this? Money? Did they think the 27 year old McLouth had reached his ceiling and couldn't get any better? If it was money, why sign him to the three year contract in February? Certainly you thought he was worth it then. What would change your mind barely two full months in the season?! If it was money, why not trade LaRoche then? He was the free agent at the end of the season. There were teams that certainly needed a power hitting first baseman at the time McLouth was traded. Carlos Delgado was already on the shelf for the Mets by the time the Pirates traded McLouth. Just doesn't make sense.

2) If you are going to trade LaRoche, couldn't you have got one good prospect that's nearly ready or at least one very good prospect? Seriously, Diaz was hitting .253 at Double A, with no pop (no HRs, 14 doubles and 1 triple in 277 at bats). He is a very good fielder (named Boston's best minor league defensive player of the year three years in a row). But he hasn't shown he can hit nor does he have speed (only seven steals in eleven attempts this season). And the other player, Hunter Strickland was an 18th round pick of the Red Sox who had a 3.35 ERA at Single A Greenville in the South Atlantic League. LaRoche's numbers were down this season but his career OPS in the second half of the season is .941, which is pretty impressive. Yet, the Pirates could get only two minor league players who may never get to the majors and if they do, it will certainly take Strickland at least two years and Diaz probably one full year.

It's a pretty simple reason. Money. The Red Sox were willing to assume the rest of LaRoche's contract for the season (nearly 3 million). Apparently other teams were willing to offer a better prospect but couldn't take all the money. Even more the reason to have traded LaRoche sooner. They could have eaten some of the money (say the 4 million they paid him already this year), traded him sooner and got a better player in return. The Pirates already have moved Diaz to Triple A Indianapolis to try to placate their remaining fan base.

If these two trades don't make you start questioning the Pirate franchise, then perhaps this dandy of one done on my baseball trip will finally convince you. On Monday, June 29th, I saw Nyjer Morgan (pictured left) play left field and bat second for the Pittsburgh Pirates at PNC against the Chicago Cubs. On Friday, July 3rd, I saw Nyjer Morgan play centerfield and hit leadoff for the Washington Nationals against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. That's because the Pirates traded Morgan on Wednesday, July 1st to the Nationals for Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan.

In 278 at bats, Morgan was hitting .277 for the Pirates with 18 steals and an on base percentage of .351. In 70 at bats for the Nationals, Morgan is hitting .329 with 11 steals and an on base percentage of .368. Milledge, had been sent down by the Nationals after the first month and was still out due to an injury he suffered in the minors. Hanrahan, briefly the Nats closer had a ERA of 7.71 with the Nationals while giving up FIFTY hits in 32 innings this season.

Morgan is also known as an excellent defensive outfielder (just ask the Mets on their recent road trip to DC on how good Morgan is) while also being a really positive influence in the clubhouse. Milledge is a well known cancer who the Mets happily traded away to Nats (during the moronic Jim Bowden era) and the Nats couldn't be more happy to be rid of as well (on that same day they got rid of Milledge, they sent down the equally troublesome Elijah Dukes to make a spot for Morgan - a win, win, win situation for the Nats). As I noted in my previous trip post of the Nats-Braves game, one fan described the Pirates getting Hanrahan as "I guess the Pirates saw something in Hanrahan that we hadn't seen in the first sixty games".

What do all these moves have in common? One man, Neal Huntington, general manager of the Pirates. Huntington was hired as general manager of the Pirates in October, 2007. Under Huntington, the Pirates have stressed sabermetrics, or perhaps I should say Huntington's brand of sabermetrics. Under Huntington, the following trades were made.

1) Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte to the New York Yankees in exchange for minor leaguers Jose Tabata, Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf, and Dan McCutchen. Nady at the time was hitting .330 with 13 HRs and 57 RBIs in 327 at bats. He added 12 HRs and 40 RBIs in 227 ABs for the Yankees (giving him 25 HRs 97 RBIs in 554 ABs - very nice numbers). Marte at the time of the trade had a 3.47 ERA and averaged a strikeout per inning in 47 innings pitched. Marte would struggle with the Yankees the remainder of the year posting an ERA of 5.00. Nady and Marte have been hurt most of the 2009 season, Nady needing Tommy John surgery on his elbow.

As for the "booty" the Pirates received in return, the prize prospect was Jose Tabata, an outfielder with a questionable attitude and background. Tabata, 21, is repeating Double A ball again this year at Altoona, showing very little power (2 HRs and 13 doubles in 200 ABs) while hitting .290 with only six steals. McCutchen, a little old for a prospect at 26 (turns 27 in October), has been OK with Triple A Indianapolis with a 9-5 record with a 4.19 ERA and a ratio of 3-1 in strikeouts to walks. He was a 13th round pick of the Yankees back in 2006. Both

Karstens and Ohlendorf have been up with the Pirates since the trade last year. Karstens, a 19th round pick of the Yankees in 2003, got off to a good start in 2008 for the Pirates before cooling off with a 4.03 ERA in nine starts. This season Karstens struggled and was sent to the bullpen. Currently he has a ERA of 4.26 ERA in 25 games (with 10 starts). Karstens has a very poor strikeouts to walks ratio of 1-1 (36-36) in 82 innings. Ohlendorf, a fourth round pick of the Diamondbacks in 2004 (traded to the Yankees in the 2007 Randy Johnson deal), has equally as struggled. In 2006, Ohlendorf had an ERA of 6.46 in 62 innings with the Pirates. This season, Ohlendorf has a 4.59 ERA in 19 starts. Ks to walks are also a problem for Ohlendorf. Last year it was 49-31 and this season it's 62-32 in 111 innings (the walks have improved).

2) Jason Bay to the Red Sox, Manny Ramirez from the Sox to the Dodgers for Brandon Moss, Andy LaRoche, Craig Hansen and Bryan Morris (Pirates picked up two players each from the Dodgers and the Red Sox). Bay, of course, was an All Star for the Pirates, having two 100+ RBI seasons. He would end up with 101 RBIs in 2008 with a combined 31 HRs for both the Pirates and the Red Sox and he is having a good year with 20 HRs and 72 RBIs. The return for Bay was not horrible, but not great either. Moss is hitting .254 with 5 HRs and 27 RBIs, while LaRoche is hitting .262 with 4 HRs and 37 RBIs. So Moss and LaRoche have 11 less HRs and 8 less RBIs combined than Bay. LaRoche is a former 39th round pick of the Dodgers while Moss was an eighth round pick of the Sox.

Hansen, who makes as much money as LaRoche and Moss combined ($825,500) is a former first round pick who has been out most of the season with a nerve issue in his neck. Hansen had struggled in his two seasons with the Red Sox putting up ERAs over 6.00 in both seasons. Hansen was consistent in his time with the Pirates last season, also putting up an ERA of 6.00. Meanwhile, Bryan Morris, who was selected in the first round by the Dodgers in 2006 is struggling at A Ball with an ERA over 5.00.

3) Pirates acquire Delwyn Young for two players to be named. The Dodgers had designated Young for assignment and the Pirates traded two minor league players for Young. It was actually Huntington's best move as general manager. Young, a switch hitter, has hit .321 for the Pirates with 4 HRs and 21 RBIs in 159 at bats. He is probably not an everyday player, but certainly is a nice bat to have off the bench.

4) Nate McLouth to the Braves for pitchers Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke and Gorkys Hernandez. Morton is now with the Pirates and actually has shown some talent in his seven starts with a 3.86 ERA. Locke, a former second round pick of the Braves, has struggled in his two seasons in the minors and currently has a ERA of nearly 6.00 in 82 innings at A ball. Hernandez, signed as a free agent by the Tigers in Venezuela in 2005, is at Double A Altoona, where he is hitting .294 overall for the season with an ugly 93 strikeouts in 391 at bats and an even worse ratio of 14 steals in 26 attempts. Hernandez also only has 2 HRs on the year.

The deal was so criticized by the Pirates media and fans that Huntington had to send an "open letter" e-mail out to Pirates fans to defend the deal. In fact, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette did an editorial after the deal noting the Pirates ownership should sell the team, stating "It's time Pittsburgh baseball had ownership worthy of the game." Ouch!

5) Eric Hinske to the Yankees for pitcher Casey Erickson and outfielder/catcher Eric Fryer. Hinske was signed as a free agent for one year at 1.5 million by the Pirates. He strictly was a role player for the Pirates and really was not needed on the Pirates with a crowded outfield and LaRoche at the time playing first. Hinske has 5 HRs on the year, most of that coming with the Yankees. Erickson is a former 10th round pick of the Yankees and actually has pitched well in A Ball averaging a 3-1 strikeouts to walks ratio. Fryer was selected by the Brewers in the 10th round in 2007 before being trading to the Yankees. Fryer has struggled at Single A, hitting .245 overall.

6) Nyjer Morgan to the Nationals for Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan. At least Milledge and Hanrahan are major leaguers, albeit Hanrahan is not a very good one. The jury is still out on Milledge, who has three big league seasons under his belt, hit .268 last season for the Nats with 14 HRs, 61 RBIs and 24 steals in 523 at bats. Currently Milledge is hitting .354 for Indianapolis since the trade.

My favorite Lastings Milledge moment when he was the with the Mets in 2007 and I was at my friend Joe's house on a Friday night for a party. A friend of his stunningly said the Mets should move Carlos Beltran (he of the two gold gloves) to right and put Milledge in centerfield (I was already aware of the scouting reports that said Milledge was a corner outfielder). Milledge was traded after the season to the Mets for Ryan Church and Brian Schneider. As many baseball people know, Milledge proved with his erratic play last season that he is not a centerfielder, while Beltran won another Gold Glove. That guy was also a supposed computer expert and he was also clueless about Macbook Pros too, so he was two for two on the idiot scale.

Now Milledge might turn out to be a good ball player. But two teams, the Mets and the Nats, both cut Milledge loose. Two teams who weren't exactly stocked with good outfielders. Milledge was considered a risk by the Mets when they drafted him due to a questionable reputation. He has proved with his behavior in the majors so far that his reputation might have been warranted. And when the trade went down for Nyjer Morgan, a well liked player in the Pirates clubhouse, the Pirates' players sounded off.

6) LaRoche to the Red Sox for Argenis Diaz and Hunter Strickland. See above for analysis.

So out of six trades Huntington has made, only one, the Delwyn Young trade, looks to be good so far. The Hinske deal was strictly a salary dump. However, he should never have been signed in the first place. And LaRoche should have been traded in late May, early June. That could have been money used towards keeping McLouth. Look at the lineup the Pirates could have had today, had they kept McLouth.

CF Andrewl McCutchen
LF Nyjer Morgan
RF Nate McClouth
C Ryan Doumit
1B Garrett Jones
2B Freddy Sanchez
3B Andy LaRoche
SS Jack Wilson

Not bad and you very might have one of the best defensive teams in the major leagues. Alas, no. And you can't say that the McLouth trade was not money. The Brewers have 2/3 the market size that Pittsburgh has. Yet Milwaukee has a $80M payroll while the Pirates maybe have $50 million (if even that).

Now I went back in time and I noticed that Huntingtons were involved in several major deals in history.

1) Neal's grandfather, M. Donald Grant Huntington, was responsible for the trade in 1977 that sent Tom Seaver from the Mets to the Reds for Pat Zachary, Doug Flynn, Dan Norman, and Steve Henderson . Apparently Neal idolized Donald so much that he swore when he was GM of a club someday, he too would make such great deals.

2) Neal's great great great great grandfather, Pierre Samuel du Pont de Nemours Huntington, was responsible for selling the United States the 828,000 acres of land in the Louisiana Purchase (cost, $15 million). Apparently Huntington was on orders from Napoleon Bonaparte to "find any means necessary to fund my war with Russia, even if you have to dump the Three Musketeers."
The United States ended up getting 14 states and Canada getting 2 provinces, kind of like the Red Sox getting Jason Bay and the Dodgers getting Manny Ramirez.

3) Neal's long ago descendant, Grand Chief Huntington, a member of the Canarsee Tribe, was the chief negotiatior responsible for selling the island of Manhattan to Peter Minuit, aka the Theo Epstein of New Amsterdam, for 60 guilders in 1626 (which would be $1000 now). Huntington did get a get town in Brooklyn, Canarsie, named after his tribe.

Now of course, I am being facetious about the long line of Huntingtons involved in these deals. However, all of the other facts in those above mentioned deals did occur (sans the Bonaparte quote). I have two points. One, Huntington is like M. Donald Grant, the French, and the Canarsee Tribe. Perhaps you might want to hold onto what you have. Down the road, it might be worth a lot more than now. Don't be so quick to deal your assets.

Second, Neal might want to tell his employers, you need to spend money to make money. Nickel and dime your team and you will end up with a team worth a nickel and a dime. Just look a few hours west to Milwaukee to see what you can do with a little more salary and better minor league development. Sadly, there's a reason why only 15,000 a night to come out to see the Pirates in what I think is the best baseball park in the major leagues . The proof is in the management.

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