Your Daily Fantasy Rx
by Tim Polko
The Pirates' ownership-imposed mid-season roster dumps ranks as one of the worst management decisions in the last few decades, right up there with the Padres' deals in the early 1990s, as well as the Marlins' move following their 1997 championship. With two core offensive players capable of excelling for the next few years in Brian Giles and Aramis Ramirez, along with a decent rotation led by Kip Wells, Kris Benson, and Josh Fogg, Pittsburgh could have remained competitive in the near future, likely finishing within five wins of a .500 record for much of the decade.
Of course, Pittsburgh owner Kevin McClatchy realized that only a succession of playoff appearances would justify PNC Park, so he reportedly ordered rapid payroll downsizing. Dave Littlefield, the same GM who made two of the dumbest moves of last winter in trading a solid pitching prospect for Matt Herges before cutting Herges, as well as dealing three decent prospects for Randall Simon, who the Tigers would have non-tendered, conducted the fire sale.
In exchange for Kenny Lofton and the very reasonably priced Aramis Ramiez, Littlefield only received Bobby Hill and a two-month rental of Jose Hernandez to replace Ramirez. We like Hill more than many analysts and believe the Cubs should have offered a couple of pitchers instead, however Littlefield committed a bigger sin than essentially swapping Ramirez for Hill. He acquired Matt Bruback, a quality AAAA starter, in the initial deal, and rather than dumping someone like Hernandez or Jeff Reboulet to make room on the 40-man roster for Hill as the PTBNL, Littlefield tried to slip Bruback through waivers. San Diego claimed him in the first waiver slot, giving the Pirates a 25-year-old second baseman to show for one of the top third baseman in the game, not to mention a couple months from a quality leadoff hitter.
Around the time of the Ramirez deal, Pittsburgh sent Mike Williams and cash to Philadelphia for Frank Barnes, a rather poor return for a marginal closer. They then dealt Scott Sauerbeck and Mike Gonzalez to Boston for Brandon Lyon and Anastacio Martinez, a questionable move even before they discovered Lyon's arm problems. Prior to the July trade deadline, Pittsburgh reversed 75% of that deal so that their total interaction with Boston involved trading Jeff Suppan and Scott Sauerbeck, two of the more valuable commodities on the trade market, for Freddy Sanchez, a quality infield prospect but likely not a future star.
All these deals leave the Pirates on the short end of each move thanks to ownership insistence on dumping payroll, and acquiring Ray Sadler from Chicago for Randall Simon two weeks later also didn't help balance the scales. Yet none of these deals are nearly as important as the trade completed with San Diego a week before the August trade deadline.
Littlefield sent Giles, the heart of the Pirates, to the Padres in exchange for OF Jason Bay, LHP Oliver Perez, and LHP Cory Stewart. Although Bay might develop into a decent replacement for Giles, and both Perez and Stewart look quite promising, this deal still appears rather sickening. The mandate from ownership involved dumping salary, yet Giles and Ramirez both earned much less than they would have found in an open market.
My main problem with the deal is that Pittsburgh failed to include Jason Kendall, who the Padres likely would have accepted if the Pirates had waited two more months. By forcing an in-season move, they eliminated their best chance for moving Kendall.
Now we like Jason Kendall. He remains a valuable player even if he hasn't regained the power he lost following multiple injuries, and we rank him among the game's top catchers. While he obviously isn't worth the $42M he'll earn over the next four seasons, moving his salary gives the Pirates much more payroll flexibility than dealing Ramirez or Giles.
Ownership may have forced these moves to a large extent, however Littlefield, aside from twice swindling Kenny Williams for quality starting pitchers, simply shows no aptitude to run a successful front office. We still see a bright future for Lloyd McClendon and are glad Pittsburgh kept him for another season, particularly given their late-season surge, but I expect a new GM is a necessary step for the Pirates to reach the playoffs. Hopefully McClendon will avoid the coming management purge, although he at least should surface with another team in the near future.
Pittsburgh won their first four games following the Giles trade, finishing with a 17-17 record from that point to the end of the season. Considering the team still wound up six games under .500, the success of the youngsters was a welcome development in PNC. Now, if Littlefield wants to save his administration after a couple years of mismanagement, he must learn from the mistakes of his predecessor.
Back in 1996, McClatchy ordered his first payroll dump. GM Syd Thrift dealt Denny Neagle for Ron Wright and Jason Schmidt that August, and then sent Orlando Merced, Carlos Garcia, and Dan Plesac to Toronto in November for a package that eventually included Jose Silva, Abraham Nunez and Craig Wilson. A couple weeks later, Thrift moved Jeff King and Jay Bell to Kansas City for Joe Randa and a couple relievers.
Following the Neagle deal, Pittsburgh had won 17 of their final 27 games with a minimum payroll. Signing no major free agent except for Kevin Elster, who largely flopped, the Pirates managed to finish 1997 with a 79-83 record, good enough for 2nd place in a weak division. Thrift incorrectly assumed that cheap acquisitions such as Kevin Young were responsible for the continued improvement, and he began handing out long-term contracts like candy to replacement-level players.
As long as Littlefield avoids free agency almost completely this winter, Pittsburgh should approach 80 wins with their surprisingly talented core. Tike Redman emerged as a quality center fielder and leadoff hitter over the last two months of the season. Jason Kendall posted a .399 OBP and should remain at catcher unless Pittsburgh finds a catcher-needy team ready to assume his entire deal. Jason Bay pounded the ball for a .291/.423/.506 line in 79 at-bats. A .262/.360/.511 performance from Craig Wilson should earn him the first base job, giving the Pirates a relatively decent top half of the lineup.
The only lineup spot likely to be below average is shortstop, where Jack Wilson should return. We'd like to see Bobby Hill at second base, Freddy Sanchez at third base, and J.J. Davis in right field, although re-signing someone like Matt Stairs to provide left-handed power is a decent idea. While the team will need to rely on inexpensive free agents or waiver claims to fill out the bench with decent players, I see no logical reason for the Pirates not to spent most of 2004 to see if their youngsters, all of whom have succeeded at AAA, can remain effective in the majors.
Not only does the lineup appear respectable, Pittsburgh's starting rotation could be as good as any in the division expect for the Cubs' starters. Kip Wells' development continued, and while Kris Benson flailed at times, I expect him to rebound if the organization demonstrates confidence in his abilities. With Oliver Perez, Ryan Vogelsong, and some combination of Josh Fogg, Nelson Figueroa, Salomon Torres, and Brian Meadows rounding out the rotation, the Pirates easily could finish with an above-average starting rotation. Signing over a dozen AAAA arms was a good idea a year ago, however Littlefield should not target any veteran starters with winter given the wave of minor league prospects nearing this already-respectable starting contingent.
Pittsburgh's central problem is that their bullpen is a mess. Joe Beimel and John Grabow are decent left-handers, however only Mike Lincoln and Julian Tavarez demonstrated obvious skill among right-handers, and Tavarez likely will depart this winter. The only major move the Pirates should make this winter involves signing one or two solid veteran right-handers, preferably groundball pitchers to take advantage of the solid infield defense. Considering the preference to keep payroll low, the best option probably involves re-signing Tavarez and then adding someone like Jose Jimenez, along with moving Fogg to the pen in the hope his dominance will improve. Targeting someone like Armando Benitez also wouldn't be a bad idea, particularly if he'd take a one-year deal to reestablish his market value.
While the Pirates lack high-upside position players throughout the system, their abundance of quality pitching prospects, combined with the current young starting corps, should give hope to Pittsburgh fans. As long as Littlelfield doesn't sign replacement-level veterans, trusts the current batch of kids, and keeps Kendall until a replacement is ready or another team offers an equitable deal, the next few years should be increasingly successful for the players following PNC's yellow brick road.
Jason Bay, 25, OF-R
With a 4.17 #P/PA and a .93 G-F, Bay may not be a right-handed Brian Giles yet, but he possesses the skills necessary to develop into an All-Star. An 85% SB success rate demonstrates his baserunning acumen, and as he possesses good patience and overall plate discipline, only his .67 contact rate in the majors, an unwelcome drop from his .77 AAA mark, could keep him from stardom. As he will open next year in a corner of the Pirates' outfield, I see little reason not to view him as a frontrunner for the NL Rookie of the Year, although he might earn votes for more important post-season before the end of the decade.
Given his significant improved contact rate, impressive power production, and sudden speed surge, Pittsburgh shouldn't hesitate to give the starting right field job to Davis. He'll make the team regardless due to his lack of options, however he could approach $20 if given the necessary playing time. Since he also shouldn't cost you more than around $10 in any draft, he looks like a great bargain in the majority of leagues, and only another influx of veteran talent should keep him from contending for Rookie of the Year.
Instead of emerging as the Pirates' closer following Mike Williams' exodus from Pittsburgh, Sanchez's dominance and control largely disappeared at Nashville. The team promoted him in June, but he showed up late for his first game, found his locker cleared out, and immediately headed back to the minors on an obviously punitive demotion. While his troubles at the end of the season means he might no longer be in the team's future plans, his excellent 2002 season still should make him a contender to close in the spring. He isn't worth more than an endgame gamble if he doesn't appear likely to see many save opportunities, however he still owns the skills necessary to emerge as a very effective reliever.
The idea that Sanchez should compete with Bobby Hill to start at second base next spring, particularly when Rob Mackowiak is the only current Pirate mildly qualified at third base, is repugnant to me and should offend Pirates' fans. With Hill the only return on Aramis Ramirez and Sanchez the best player netted for Jeff Suppan and Scott Sauerbeck, Pittsburgh should play players, particularly since they're ready for the majors and will add even more speed and defense to a potentially exciting lineup. Sanchez already owns better offensive skills than any infielder on the Pirates' 40-man roster, and his ability to play any infield position makes him a valuable addition to the organization. Of course, slotting Sanchez at third in 2004, then shifting him to shortstop the following season, also would be a decent idea, but Pittsburgh absolutely must start him year. Assuming they realize the logical move, move Sanchez up your draft list since easily could exceed $10 in fantasy value thanks to his consistently great BA and respectable all-around tools.
Swiped from Toronto for John Wasdin during the season, Thompson probably should remain a reserve due to his lack of power. However, his superb speed skills, combined with flashes of plate discipline, will convince multiple teams to give him a shot to leadoff. He excelled in the AFL, compiling a .346/.417/.510 performance and an 11:10 BB:K and 13/16 SB% in 104 at-bats, so Pittsburgh will give him a long look next spring as a potential reserve. If he breaks camp in the majors, consider him as your fifth outfielder since his SB upside easily compensates for any potential BA problems.
Although Alvarez's batting average remains solid and he owns decent speed and defensive skills, he hasn't developed any plate discipline despite eight minor league seasons. He no longer profiles as more than a part-time starter, so unless he surprisingly wins a job in the majors next spring, don't consider him for your team right now.
While we've seen Barnes' formerly excellent plate discipline deteriorate since he posted a .365/.439/.565 performance in 441 AB with a 57:48 BB:K in 2000 as a 24-year-old, his descent from excellent outfielder prospect to AAAA journeyman shouldn't have taken just three seasons. Yes, Barnes doesn't own great over-the-fence power, however his overall skill level warrants a big league bench job. If he ever breaks camp in the majors, strongly consider spending a buck on him in deep leagues since he could approach double-digit value in even a part-time role.
His command at Altoona caught my eye, however his unimpressive AAA numbers suggest he isn't ready to contribute to fantasy teams even if the Pirates' continuing pitching turnover forces him in the majors at some point in 2004. Bennett's spot in the AFL at least indicates Pittsburgh see some upside in him, yet he might benefit most from moving back into the rotation in 2004 considering his three successful seasons of starting in the lower levels of the system. While converting him to the bullpen this season seems hasty as his numbers as a starter were nearly as good, make sure his 2004 AAA skills are solid before rostering him next season.
Obtained from Pittsburgh for Mike Williams this summer, Brooks looks like the best option to replace Scott Sauerbeck in the Bucs' pen. He began dominating batters upon his full-time conversion to relief work a year ago, and his excellent command this season gives him an excellent shot to break camp in the majors, especially after he posted a 22:3 K:BB in 18.2 AFL innings. While he isn't a great roto option as a likely lefty specialist, he shouldn't hurt you in limited duty.
Solid stamina, command, and a ridiculously low homer rate make Burnett one of the most reliable pitching prospects in the game. I suspect his dropping strikeout rate won't allow him to dominate big league hitters to any extent, however his continued success at each minor league level gives him an excellent shot to enjoy a lengthy career in the majors. Consider him in any spring draft since he could spend much of 2004 in the majors prior to establishing himself alongside Kip Wells, Oliver Perez, and John Van Benschoten as part of an intriguingly impressive young quarter of starters.
Camp, who already signed with Kansas City this off-season, merits a long look in the spring due to his strong command skills. While he shouldn't peak as more than a decent middle reliever, he could contribute to both big leagues and fantasy teams if given the necessary opportunity.
While Castillo owns decent batting skills, promising power potential, and solid speed, the acquisitions of Freddy Sanchez and Bobby Hill suggest he easily could end up at third base, particularly if his power develops as some scouts suspect. However, while his perpetually good walk rates increase his upside, Castillo also appears to need at least one more year of seasoning. He certainly isn't a bad target in spring drafts since he almost certainly will spend a few years in the Pirates' infield, but I see several infield prospects a like a lot more than Castillo for 2004 fantasy value.
The older brother of Detroit lefty Jon, Mike Connolly is a largely unheralded prospect despite his promising command and steady progression through the system. He'll spend 2004 at AAA Nashville, and if his numbers don't suffer in the Pacific Coast League, Connolly could emerge as a solid option for the Pirates in almost any role. However, due to his unimpressive dominance and questionable future role, don't roster him until he secures a steady job in Pittsburgh.
4/16 for .250/.294/.313 with 0 HR, 1 RBI, 1 R, 0/0 SB%,
and a 1:5 BB:K for Pittsburgh.
41/200 for .205/.284/.370 with 8 HR, 27 RBI, 23 R, 2/2 SB%,
and a 20:59 BB:K for AAA Nashville(PCL).
With Jason Kendall and Craig Wilson in the majors and J.R. House and Ryan Doumit quickly rising in the minors, Cota picked a bad time to experience a second poor season in a row. Although the .297/.351/.477 he posted at Nashville in 2001 still indicates some long-term potential, Cota seems to need a change of scenery in an attempt to regain his lost potential. I no longer view him as a viable roto option while in Pittsburgh barring the highly unlikely rediscovery of his talent skills.
The promising lefty shifted to the bullpen this year, developing nicely after a couple of years at Altoona despite spending part of July with the Red Sox when Pittsburgh dealt him away in the Scott Sauerbeck deal before reacquiring him in the Jeff Suppan deal. However, despite a decent 37:18 K:BB in 34.1 IP, Gonzalez's control and flyball problems appear able to keep him from contributing to roto teams in the near future. Particularly if the Pirates plan to continue employing him as a lefty specialist, he possesses little fantasy upside over the next few years.
His starting career stalled at AA, but Grabow surged to the majors after shifting to the bullpen this year. He ranks with the top lefty relief prospects in baseball after dominating the upper levels of the minors and remaining effective in his first cup-of-coffee. While he appears ready to succeed in the majors, Pittsburgh still might stupidly sign another lefty, yet I still would expect Grabow back in the majors by the trade deadline as long as he at least echoes these skills at Nashville. Don't draft him even if he breaks camp since we need to see if he maintains these great skills gains, but I expect Grabow to emerge as quality roster filler in the second half before likely meriting a Dollar Days' pick in 2005 drafts.
Although his increasing stamina problems concern me, Guerrier now owns a 251:83 K:BB in over 343 AAA innings. Of course, his high homer rate also limits his upside, yet I see no reason he shouldn't be in the majors now. If given the necessary opportunity, he could succeed in almost any role.
Following his promising performance during the season, House's .338/.386/.730 line in the Arizona Fall League helped him regain his prospect status even if he only managed a 5:14 BB:K in those 74 AFL at-bats. He needs a full year at Nashville given his complete lack of AAA experience, but House still possesses solid power and sufficient plate discipline to emerge as an offensive force among big league catchers. While I still don't view him as someone to target given the Pirates' depth in catching, don't ignore him if you see him available late in reserve rounds since any injury to Jason Kendall should force House into a starting role for Pittsburgh.
Another member of the Pirates' relatively unheralded but quite effective Altoona rotation, Jacobsen's unimpressive dominance suggests he'll need to shift to the bullpen to see much time in the majors. However, he should enjoy at least one season starting at AAA Nashville before he needs to make that switch, so he could reestablish his case as a starter. Regardless of his 2004 role, Jacobsen won't be a fantasy option until he at least echoes these stats at Nashville.
The several solid lefties in the system ahead of Johnston could keep him from Pittsburgh until next fall, however this dominant performance should insure he spends a long time in the majors. His seemingly successful battle against Tourette Syndrome demonstrates his resilience, yet his high walk rates reduce his short-term upside. Make sure Johnston posts strong skills over several big league outings before rostering him on your team.
Only a general belief that the 5'11" Oquendo appears destined for the bullpen keeps me from wholeheartedly recommending him right after John Van Benschoten and Sean Burnett. Oquendo owns excellent command, which highlights his impressive across-the-board skills. He appears as likely to succeed in the majors as any pitcher in the system thanks to his continually solid performances as he moves up the minor league ladder. Hold off on selecting him in minor league drafts, but consider rostering him as soon as he joins the Pirates in any role.
This dominant AA performance should earn the minor league free agent an NRI and a long look in camp. While I don't expect him to make the majors since Ozias hasn't pitched at AAA, he should emerge as a competent middle reliever within the next couple of years.
Chicago foolishly dumped Palma over a year ago in a minor deal for Aaron Weston, yet he continues to dominate AA batters and at least looks like a future long-term lefty specialist. Even if he won't see much playing time in the near future, his development still warrants monitoring given his solid skills and intriguing upside.
While moving to the bullpen upon his promotion to AAA helped Reid cut his homer rate, his walk rate nearly doubled. I don't envision him impacting the Pirates next year barring a surprising skill breakthrough, however thanks to the Pirates' convoluted pitching staff, he also could contribute if given a break.
Continued skill development should push Van Benschoten to the majors next fall prior to him securing a permanent place the Pittsburgh rotation the following year. His low homer rates in particular keep me from worrying about his slight control problems at Altoona, and I see no reason why he won't emerge as a successful starter as soon as he reaches the majors. Van Benschoten is an excellent prospect who should contribute a few solid starts in 2004 prior to posting double-digit values for much of the next decade.
Chris Shelton, 23, C/1B-R
Notwithstanding his month of AA struggles, Shelton easily ranks as the best homegrown hitter in the system. His career OBP below AA is well over .440 and his slugging percentages are nearly as impressive. Shelton also owns fine plate discipline, so even though he lacks great defensive skills, his bat should keep him in the lineup at first base if he can't handle catching. The only downside of selecting Shelton is that he likely need two more years of seasoning, but as long as you realize his somewhat advanced age means he won't enjoy a long run of excellence, he certainly merits serious consideration in spring NL minor league drafts.
Pittsburgh features three potential Rookie of the Year candidates and another half-dozen intriguing prospects worthy of consideration in many leagues. The only problem with targeting an outfielder or pitching here is that the system depth might limit opportunity for some prospects, however the Pirates are still a great place to look for young, emerging talent. Bay, Sanchez, Van Benschoten, and Burnett all could be special players, and Davis might earn more than any of them in 2004. Strongly consider a couple of these guys in any NL league.
Current ranking of potentially helpful fantasy depth for teams discussed thus far in 2003, based on both the quality and quantity of players ready to contribute in the majors, as well as consideration of the trade value of minor league draft picks from the lower levels of each system:
1. Pittsburgh Pirates(Bay, F.Sanchez, Van Benschoten, J.Davis)
1. Jason Bay, OF
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