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Pirates Q&A Pirates Q & A with Paul Meyer

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Wednesday, August 27, 2003

Q: I wanted to be the first person to send you a Q&A about the Brian Giles trade. It's 3:45 p.m. on Tuesday. Am I the first?

Gregg of Washington, D.C.

MEYER: No. And you certainly won't be the last, Gregg.

Q: The players (coming to the Pirates) in the deal are Oliver Perez, Jason Bay and someone else. These players must become very good major league players. Not "could be." The Pirates' staff had better be positive. By not anchoring the deal down with Jason Kendall, there is no way that they should get anything but excellent, difference-making players in return. For once, the team is dealing from strength in that Giles' contract is very reasonable and that he is in the prime of his career. No "may be goods" in this deal. Or else the deteriorating fan base will never let them forget it. Probably with empty seats.

Rusty Ryan of Bloomfield

Q: Not so much a question as a comment. After following the Pirates faithfully for 30 of my 32 years, they have finally broken me with the trade of Brian Giles for essentially nothing. I could see some of the logic in including him in a deal with Jason Kendall to make a more attractive package, but this makes no sense to me. I can handle a losing team that puts forth an effort to win, but this gives the impression that the front office has stopped trying. Does this trade make any sense to you? Is there something that the general public isn't privy to?

Joe of Swissvale

MEYER: I'm writing this late Tuesday afternoon, Aug. 26, and already there have been a spate of submissions about the Giles trade. I'd bet that by just Wednesday we'll be on the way to setting a Q&A record for submissions now held by the Lofton-Ramirez trade reaction back in July. We'll see.

Anyway, the two players we know the Pirates are getting are Oliver Perez, a 22-year-old left-handed pitcher, and Jason Bay, 24, a right-handed hitting outfielder. Both are considered strong prospects by most baseball people.

Perez throws his fastball in the mid to high 90-mile-per-hour range and has good movement on it. Back in late July when the Pirates and Padres were discussing a Giles-Kendall trade, Perez might have postponed the deal when he pitched in Philadelphia Aug. 3 and struck out 13 Phillies in seven innings. The Padres were said to be rethinking putting him in the trade at that time. The Pirates love Perez' upside. Lloyd McClendon thinks pitching coach Spin Williams can "smooth out" Perez' delivery and enable him to have better location.

Bay at one point in all the talks between the Padres and Pirates was labeled an untouchable by San Diego General Manager Kevin Towers. Trent Jewett, the manager of the Pirates' Class AAA affiliate in Nashville, just saw Bay in a four-game series in Portland, Ore. Said Jewett: "The first thing that comes to mind is that he's very strong and very athletic. He has tremendous raw strength. He's very gifted athletically." Bay is 6-foot-2, 200 pounds and should develop into a power hitter.

There were some indications yesterday that the player to be named later will actually be named pretty soon. Outfielder Xavier Nady, playing with Portland, is a possibility. However, there was some speculation, too, that this player could be left-handed pitcher Cory Stewart, 23. Stewart is 12-7 with a 3.72 earned run average in 24 starts for the Padres' Class AA Mobile Bay Bears. In 125 2/3 innings, Stewart has allowed 104 hits, including 10 home runs, and 50 walks and struck out 133.

Stewart, from Boerne, Tex., originally signed with Cincinnati, which made him its 27th-round pick in the 1998 draft. In March, 2000, Stewart underwent surgery to repair a tear in his left rotator cuff. He missed all of that season and was released by the Reds. In 2001, Stewart pitched for Amarillo in an independent league, then signed with the Padres out of their tryout camp which was held in October.

It's possible the reason Stewart's name wasn't announced yesterday - if he is the player to be named - is that the Pirates want to give him a physical exam to be sure about his left shoulder. Good move, there.

Q: I wanted to ask you about a recent Dave Littlefield interview. Someone asked him how he was planning on keeping the young talent we have once they become free agents. His answer was that he hopes the players like the atmosphere here and will re-sign. To me, this is too bleak of a plan. You and me both know there are rare exceptions that a player is going to sign for a lot less to stay with a team, never mind four or five players.

I think either of two things are going to need to happen. We need to hope that the youngsters click together in the first few years, which would lead to us competing, which would lead to (higher) attendance. Either that or we are going to have to take the Oakland A's approach of trying to keep developing talent and mixing it together with one or two key players we'd devote our money to.

Both of these ideas, I feel, are banking on too many variables. I wanted to know what you thought of this situation. Do you think either plan is going to work? If not, what will need to be done to make this team competitive for a period of time and not just one or two years, then another fire sale.

Chris of Worcester, Mass.

MEYER: Seems to me, Chris, that the only way small-revenue teams such as the Pirates can truly hope to sign top-tier free agents is to sign their own. The Pirates can't afford to outbid the New York Yankees for a top-flight power hitter or No. 1 starting pitcher. Nor, in their current situation, can the Pirates hope to attract a top-tier free agent just because he wants to play at PNC Park. Won't happen. And Littlefield is aware of that.

So what has to happen is, say, the Pirates develop a power-hitting, albeit careless defensive player, at, oh, third base. They wait as long as possible before giving him a multi-year contract during his arbitration years. Then they try to keep him here as a free agent by hoping he'll take a "hometown discount" and being fair with him in a contract offer. It worked with Brian Giles a few years ago. Giles is playing at under-market value currently, although I think he won't go for that again here.

So, for the Pirates, it has to be grow your own-sign your own. Then maybe there will be some money left over to sign a decent free agent to fill a specific need. Or two.

Q: Do you think Kevin McClatchy misled people by saying a new ballpark would help the team a lot? I just cannot figure how they are in such awful financial shape. I realize I have trouble balancing my checkbook, but I can still figure out when something is funny.

Steve Bloom of Pittsburgh

MEYER: It beats me, too, Steve, how the Pirates can be in such dire financial straits. Yes, there have been some bad contracts to pay off. Yes, attendance isn't so hot. But, geez! I don't think Kevin McClatchy misled anybody. The new ballpark certainly should have helped the Pirates - at the bank and in the standings. But it sure hasn't yet. Maybe in a couple years it will if the Pirates can gain some of that all-important "financial flexibility" and win back the trust of the fans and begin putting contending teams on the field at the new ballpark.

Q: Can you tell me why the Pirates continue to use Joe Beimel as a reliever when they have a flame thrower like Mike Gonzalez on the bench. I e-mailed you earlier about having seen Gonzalez pitch for the Altoona Curve against the Giants' Double A affiliate in Norwich, Conn. He was absolutely "lights out" in that game, striking out five of the six batters he faced. Everyone around me was impressed with his "pop" and placement. I was floored when he was traded to the Red Sox. I told all my Sox friends that Sauerbeck was OK, but that they'd like Gonzalez even more. Even Theo Epstein was talking more about getting Gonzalez than getting Sauerbeck. Luckily, the Bucs were able to get Gonzalez back. Now, they need to let him pitch. I think it would be worth giving him a shot at closer.

Mike Jasenak of Groton, Conn.

MEYER: I think we'll begin to see Mike Gonzalez gradually pitch in more critical situations in games - situations in which Beimel would have pitched. The Pirates didn't want to throw Gonzalez right into those situations, but because Beimel has struggled so badly they might have to do it. Beimel, who was mentored by Scott Sauerbeck, should be able to handle the critical situations by now. However, he moved from a less-stressful role to a high-profile role in the bullpen. Sometimes it takes time for a pitcher or player to adjust to a new role. Part of the reason for that is that the player thinks he has to throw harder or hit more home runs or whatever and he gets out of sync. Beimel surely seems to be in that situation at present.

A word of caution, though, about Gonzalez. He won't have any more success than Beimel if he doesn't throw strikes. If he can do that, he has a chance to be very successful in the Pirate bullpen. His stuff seems fine and he throws in the mid-90s. Heck, he might even have closer stuff, but we'll see how that plays out. There definitely is an opening for that job.

Q: I moved from Pittsburgh to North Carolina a year and a half ago, and one of the nice things about this area is the terrific minor league baseball we have in the Durham Bulls and the Carolina Mudcats. Although I miss the "loyalty" aspect of going to Pirate games, I have to say that I actually enjoy the "baseball" more in the minors.

I guess my question is this: With the Pirates about to finish their 11th consecutive losing season, attendance dropping and the Pirates losing tens of millions of dollars, what would be the downside (for the fans) of the Pirates leaving town and Pittsburgh becoming one of the premier minor league cities in the country? I understand, theoretically, there's negative impact on the region's economy and national perception, but for the fans, would it be such a horrible thing? Imagine winning from time to time. Imagine having talented players from time to time. Imagine paying $6.50 for an incredible seat and watching players who aren't absolutely miserable being there. And, let's face it, the Bucs appear to be the AAA affiliate of the Chicago Cubs anyway. Why not make it official?

Jeff Dudash of Raleigh, N.C.

MEYER: I hear you, Jeff. I went to a couple minor league games this summer - watching the Class A Lynchburg and Hickory teams - and it's definitely a comfortable atmosphere. Pretty good baseball, too. But how would a Class AAA team fare at PNC Park? Lot of seats to fill. Not to mention that drop in status Pittsburgh would have to a degree.

On the other hand, minor league baseball has enjoyed a lot of success in a lot of places over the past decade or so. One thing's for sure - PNC Park would be the absolute best minor league stadium in the country. Don't know, though, how the good folks in Altoona would feel about competing for fans with a minor league team in Pittsburgh.

Q: When I look at the current standings (unbelievably the Pirates are still only seven games or so out of first place despite unloading a boat load of quality players) and the number of times in recent games where a quality relief pitcher like Mike Williams or Scott Sauerbeck might have preserved a win, I can't help but wonder what might have been if (Dave Littlefield) had just been a little more patient with the team he had assembled. In retrospect, do you think the Pirates would have been able to stay in the pennant race if they hadn't unloaded especially the likes of Kenny Lofton, Williams and Sauerbeck? Dream a little. What do you think would have happened with the Pirates if they had kept Lofton, Williams and Sauerbeck?

Jerry Moore of North Potomac, Md.

MEYER: Jerry, the Pirates weren't really in any division race before all the trades began being made. On July 20, for example, when the Pirates announced the Mike Williams-to-Philadelphia trade, they were 42-52 and 9 1/2 games out of first place. That isn't being in contention. And the bullpen wasn't all that great at that time.

The bullpen is awful now, granted, but the Pirates don't seem significantly worse off - at the moment - than they were before they began trading away this team. At this writing, they're 58-70 and nine games out of first place. They were treading water before. They're still treading water. It could be they're about to sink further in the standings, but they weren't going to win any division championship. They weren't going to get any wild-card spot.

Best to turn our attention to what Littlefield can do during the offseason to get this ship headed in the right direction next year. Hard to dream very much about what's been pretty much of a nightmare season.

Q: Why not Rob Mackowiak at third for the rest of the season? Jose Hernandez is clearly a stiff with runners in scoring position and he obviously has no future with the Bucs. Go Mackowiak!

Gregory Crosbie of Bristol, Ind.

MEYER: OK, let's play Mackowiak at third base against right-handed pitchers for the rest of this season. That would prevent Hernandez from breaking the season strikeout record, which I guess would be a positive. Mackowiak can't be any worse defensively than was Aramis Ramirez. And Mackowiak has the occasional pop.

But let's don't get carried away with Mackowiak - or Craig Wilson, for that matter - being the short- and long-term solution at third base. Littlefield has said several times that the Pirates' third baseman for next season will be acquired "externally" - meaning he'll sign as a free agent or will come here via a trade. There is no "quick fix" at third base in the Pirate minor league system, although third baseman Jose Bautista, who missed much of this year because of an injury, is playing for Class A Lynchburg again.

Q: Abraham Nunez seems to be blossoming offensively with increased playing time. Will he be given a chance to compete for the starting job at second base or have the Pirates convinced themselves that he will never be more than a utility infielder?

Tom Wright of Upper St. Clair

MEYER: Nunez is doing pretty well in his utility infielder role. He's demonstrated some improvement with the bat this season. He's OK defensively for a game or two at second base or shortstop. However, he isn't good enough to be a full-time player for the Pirates. Probably not for any team. He could probably play here for a while - switch-hitter, doesn't complain, tries to improve - but he's closing in on free agency in another year or so. He makes almost $700,000 this season. Doubtful the Pirates want to go much higher with him in that regard. And might not want to go even that high.

Q: I love seeing all the minor league teams play .500 ball. Apparently Littlefield has begun resurrecting the development system, meaning prospects will be making their way to Pittsburgh over the next few years. Am I being too optimistic here?

Don Angel of Cincinnati

MEYER: It's nice to be optimistic, Don, but probably it's better to be cautious. Granted, this is the second straight season in which all six of the Pirates' minor league affiliates will have records above .500. That's encouraging. It means players are doing things that win games. It probably means something that the players at Hickory in 2002 who moved up to Lynchburg in 2003 continued to be successful. And that the Lynchburg players of 2002 who played for Altoona this season continued to be successful and learn how to win. And it probably says something that Nashville and Altoona, the top two teams in the Pirate system, will make the postseason this year after missing out last year. That should indicate prospects are continuing to develop. But until, say, Nashville is strong every season - without having to rely on a bunch of minor league free agents - it's too early to get real excited about the minor league talent.

Yes, the Pirates have prospects. Yes, some did get to Nashville this year. More should next year. But until those prospects get to the major leagues and establish themselves in the big leagues and the PIRATES get to the postseason, it doesn't matter all that much that the farm teams have winning records.

That they do should mean good things for the Pirates in the future. But as you know - in baseball - you never know.

Q: I was curious as to the situation going on in Nashville with the Sounds. It appears they are on the verge of clinching a division title. How is this being done by this team when everyone constantly says there is virtually no help for the major league team anywhere in the top levels of the minor league system? Are most of these guys just career minor leaguers who are having good seasons?

Sean of Pittsburgh

MEYER: The Sounds, like a lot of Class AAA teams, had a bunch of "Four A" players - guys who are good enough to get to the big leagues but not good enough to stick in the big leagues. Third baseman Mike Gulan contributed. Outfielders Adam Hyzdu and John Barnes contributed. Utility player David Doster contributed. Infielder Aaron Holbert contributed. And the pitching staff, which has a lot of "Four A" pitchers, performed extremely well. That the Sounds continued to win with infielder Jeff Reboulet, first baseman Carlos Rivera, center fielder Tike Redman and right fielder joining the Pirates says a lot about Nashville Manager Trent Jewett's ability.

All that said, the Sounds were not brimming with impact-type major league prospects this year. Perhaps next year. What baseball people said about the Pirate farm system this year was that there were few, if any, IMPACT prospects in the upper reaches of the system. The possible impact prospects are still in Class A - mostly - although Altoona featured a few this year.

Q: Paul, I think the "No Pepper" signs started appearing to keep the playing fields in shape. There are a lot of short, quick movements in the game of pepper. If you play it a lot and in one space, you can really tear the grass up. I believe that is why those signs first appeared in all major league parks and tradition probably keeps them there.

Dan of New York, New York

Q: I'm happy to report that "pepper" is alive and well in Washington County. The kids in our youth baseball association have been spotted playing pepper at practices. I've also seen Frontier League players engaging in a little pepper in the outfield before Wild Things games. Frontier League baseball doesn't satisfy the hunger for the top notch quality of major league baseball, but it does provides a solid baseball fix for the die-hard baseball fan, who appreciates the game at all levels.

Dan McBride of Peters Township

MEYER: Thanks for the pepper feedback, Dan and Dan. It's pleasing to know some players still play pepper prior to playing.

Q: For the younger set, what is pepper and how do you play? I have seen the signs on the ballpark walls but never knew what they meant.

Tom Kovalcik of Barrington, N. H.

MEYER: The neat thing about pepper, Tom, is that as few as two people can play it. One bats. One throws - from as little as 10 feet away. The object is to try to hit every toss. Doesn't have to be hard. Just contact. Then the players switch jobs. It's probably better if there's one hitter and four or five tossers. Tossers can work their way up to being the hitter by catching a certain number of balls in a row or whatever. Actually, one of the neat things about pepper is that people pretty much can make up their own rules - and change those rules without Bud Selig or Don Fehr having to get involved.

Q: Are the Pirates considering more "turn back the clock" promotions? I would like to go to more ballgames without all of the incessant noise from the organ, the scoreboard videos, etc. How 'bout some old-fashioned baseball without all of the contrivances? The sounds of the game are sufficient.

Daniel Konefal of Pittsburgh

MEYER: I do think the Pirates are considering this. Or should. The "turn back the clock" night against Boston in June was a huge success. And in one of his meetings with season ticket holders in July, Dave Littlefield got a question or two about this from fans, who urged more "quiet" nights. I'd love it. The music and other clap-trap is way too loud. People can stand not to see the pierogies trip over the Parrot a few games a season. We can go a few nights without hearing what Pirate players would do if they found $100 on the sidewalk. Get my drift?

It won't hurt if people let the Pirates know they'd like more quiet. We can run some submissions in this venue about it. The Pirates read this stuff. Maybe they could call them "Quiet Nights" and we'll be able to hear the crack of the bat 'n at.

Q: This is more of a statement than a question. We all bemoan the status of the Pirates. We don't understand the trades. We're tired of rebuilding and we're certainly weary of players making inordinate amounts of money with no production. But one thing Paul's column shows is that we all remain intensely addicted to our Buccos. With we diehards, there is always hope. I'm not getting any younger (I've been a Buccos fan for 45 years), so please, guys, win one for all we diehards who have been with you win or lose.

Larry of Coconut Creek, Fla.

MEYER: I think we're going to introduce a new feature of the Q&A, beginning this week with this submission. Each week, I'll post a submission that really doesn't require an answer - and probably won't get one - but might be interesting to some people. Or whatever. So here goes.

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