Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Free Agent Preview: Mike Wallace

By Bill Barnwell on

The job of an agent is diametrically opposed to that of a general manager. The agents' job, of course, is to make the players they represent look as valuable as possible. That doesn't necessarily mean wildly distorting a player's abilities — nobody's going to buy that Marion Barber is worth $40 million — but it does involve creating the best possible context for their player. A good agent not only creates demand, he creates doubt in the heads of general managers by convincing them that the player they're trying to sign is worth more than the GM's valuation.

As part of our preview of this year's free agency period, we're going to approach the market from an agent's perspective. You may be familiar with the "books" that baseball mega-agent Scott Boras prepares for his top free agents, binders with page after page of arguments detailing why Alex Rodriguez or Prince Fielder deserves a $200 million contract. Football agents, as you might expect, prepare similar sorts of packets for their players.

Well, all this week, we're going to step into the shoes of those agents. We don't have the time, staff, or obvious financial motivations of someone like Boras to prepare a 72-page document for a player, but we're going to prepare abbreviated "books" for five of the NFL's most interesting restricted and unrestricted free agents. While we often use statistics to try to get accurate gauges of a player's value or performance, that's not going to be our goal here. Instead, these books will attempt to make each player look as valuable as possible, even if we don't truly believe that the player is actually worth as much as the books suggest.

Today, we start with explosive Steelers wideout Mike Wallace. See? We've already started talking these guys up. We're basically agents already. And where did these six cell phones come from?

The Book on Mike Wallace

At 25, Mike Wallace is the most promising young receiver in all of football. He's accomplished more during his first three years in the league than any other wide receiver in recent memory, despite unfavorable conditions, regular absences from his starting quarterback, and the presence of two of the league's most decorated wide receivers ahead of him on the depth chart when he entered the league. Any team lucky enough to have Mike Wallace on its roster can expect to have the best wideout in football in its uniform for the next several seasons.

An Auspicious Debut

No active receiver has put together a more impressive résumé during his first three seasons as a pro than has Mike Wallace. If you compare what Wallace has done during that time to every other active wideout over the first three years of their respective careers, Wallace's statistical record is staggering. Consider:

• Among active wideouts, Wallace's 3,206 receiving yards are the second-most accrued during a player's first three seasons, behind only Anquan Boldin.

• Among receivers with a total of 60 receptions or more during their first three seasons, Wallace has averaged more yards per catch.

• He's scored 24 touchdowns in his first three seasons, more than any other receiver in football besides Braylon Edwards.

Wallace's performance during his first three seasons compares favorably to stars like Calvin Johnson, Andre Johnson, and Roddy White over the first three years in their respective careers. The table below lists the three-year totals for Wallace, those receivers, and other notable players, ranked by receiving yards:

Could He Be Better Elsewhere?

In addition to his impressive performance, there are reasons to think that Wallace's statistics might understate his true level of performance. While Wallace has made it through every contest in his 48-game career without missing a game and has yet to be placed on the injury report with an ailment that classified him as "Questionable" or "Doubtful," that hasn't always been true of his quarterback. Ben Roethlisberger missed one game during the 2009 season and another during the 2011 season thanks to injury; beyond those absences, Roethlisberger was a dramatically limited player during two other 2011 games because of his high ankle sprain, and was suspended for the first four games of the 2010 season.

Together, those injuries mean that Wallace has had to play just under 17 percent of his career with a backup quarterback under center. When Roethlisberger's been in the lineup and (relatively) healthy, Wallace has been a far better player. In fact, if we prorate each set of numbers to a 16-game season, Wallace has been about twice as good with Roethlisberger in the lineup as he has been when Roethlisberger's been injured and/or unable to play:
During Wallace's tenure with the Steelers, he's also been part of a team that's played at a very slow pace. In fact, last year, Pittsburgh's offense only ran 165 possessions, the lowest total in football.
Fewer possessions, of course, mean fewer chances to rack up totals. Compare that to the Jets, who had 198 possessions to work with over the course of their season; receivers on the Jets got 33 more possessions to work with, or nearly 20 percent of Pittsburgh's entire total. If you take Wallace's statistics from 2011 and adjust them for a 198-possession rate, he finishes with 1,431 receiving yards, improving his total from 11th in the league to fourth.

In addition, while other players get to pad their statistics by making plays and picking up meaningless yardage in garbage time, Wallace has rarely enjoyed such a luxury during his time with the Steelers. Over his first three seasons, just 7 percent of Wallace's receptions have come while his team trailed by 14 or more points. The league average for receivers is just under 16 percent, and similarly skilled players on subpar teams get even higher; Larry Fitzgerald has accrued nearly 19 percent of his receptions in those scenarios. Wallace's production has come when it's mattered most to his team, to an extent that virtually no other player in football can match.

If Wallace plays on a team with a healthier quarterback that moves the ball up and down the field at even a league-average pace, his performance will improve beyond his already impressive rates.

Wallace vs. Holmes

When Mike Wallace entered the league in 2009, he had little claim to regular playing time. The Steelers were coming off a win in Super Bowl XLIII, and their starting receivers were a pair of Super Bowl MVPs: Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. Wallace was also behind Limas Sweed, whom the Steelers had chosen in the second round of the previous year's draft. Wallace quickly beat out Sweed for the third wideout job in training camp, and less than two years later, he was Pittsburgh's no. 1 receiver in the Super Bowl.

In the process, the Steelers elected to trade Holmes to the New York Jets in a decision that was clearly motivated by aspects beyond football. Wallace, regarded as a model teammate and without any embarrassing off-field incidents on his résumé, took over and allowed the Steelers to proceed without missing a beat. In fact, since Holmes went to the Jets and signed a five-year, $45 million contract, Wallace has very clearly been the better player:

The disparity between their performances is obvious, but it stretches even further when you remember the difference in possessions between the two teams; even though Holmes missed four games of the 2010 campaign because of a suspension, he's still seen action on more drives than Wallace has over the past two years. And Wallace is also playing at this superior level of performance while he's two years younger than Holmes. Wallace has clearly been the superior player to last year's free agent catch, and he should only continue to get better over the next several seasons.


Very simply, the chance to acquire a 25-year-old receiver with this sort of electric skills and proven track record of production does not come around frequently, if ever. Imagine that your organization could have signed Jerry Rice or Randy Moss to a contract three years into their careers while merely sacrificing a first-round pick. On the rare occasions when players of this ilk become available, they usually have baggage of some nature attached and require far more than a first-round pick. There is no such baggage surrounding Wallace, and because of Pittsburgh's salary cap situation, the league has been presented with a chance to acquire him for a price far below his true market value.

Mike Wallace isn't just a free agent. He's a once-in-a-generation opportunity.

Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Pens can get by with Martin if need be

By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
February 21, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - JANUARY 06: Paul Martin #7 of the Pittsburgh Penguins passes the puck during the NHL game against the New York Rangers at Consol Energy Center on January 6, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Rangers defeated the Penguins 3-1. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

As Monday's NHL trade deadline approaches, the less-informed Pittsburgh hockey marks dream thusly: Let's trade all our bad players for all their good players.

To wit, one popular proposal suggests the Penguins send defenseman Paul Martin and goaltender Brent Johnson to Chicago for winger Patrick Sharp.

Great idea. A minus-11 defenseman and a backup goaltender that got knocked out of the box in four of his last six starts seems fair compensation for Sharp's 24 goals and 27 assists in 52 games. Who needs a sharpshooting winger, anyway?

Well, besides everybody.

Anyway, Martin isn't going anywhere. Not yet.

Martin's lackluster play makes his $5 million yearly salary (payable through 2015) difficult to unload. General Manager Ray Shero might attempt to trade Martin in the off-season.

A team lacking defensively with decent cap space (Minnesota?) might see Martin as a workhorse that would thrive on responsibility and minutes in a low-pressure situation, like Brian Campbell in Florida. Martin has a limited movement clause, but Pittsburgh has not been a good experience. He'd likely go.

But right now, the Penguins need Martin.

Martin has struggled mightily at times - witness minus-4 at Buffalo Sunday - but he's still a better option than anyone who could replace him from within the organization.

Defenseman Simon Despres was the Penguins' first-round pick in 2009. He's in his first professional season, and has played 14 games with the Penguins. He's plus-4. At the NHL level, Despres has played better than Martin this season. Few would dispute. The 6-foot-4 Despres has size, mobility and defensive acumen.

What he lacks is experience. Who would you rather have on the ice when Game 7 at Philadelphia goes to overtime, Despres or Martin? The answer, despite all his struggles, is Martin.

Martin can still be a big contributor. He's just lacks confidence. Martin has to play well to regain that. It's all on him.

The Penguins are more than adequate on defense. They have eight NHL-caliber defensemen, plus a few more that can get by. Acquiring Hal Gill would have been a luxury. Anyway, the Penguins wouldn't have outbid Nashville, which overpaid for Gill.

Some panic over the poor play of Johnson. The "experts" suggest picking up Ty Conklin, a stalwart in the Penguins net when Marc-Andre Fleury got hurt in 2007-08.

But Conklin was waived by Detroit for a reason. His current stats are worse than Johnson's. Four years can be a long time.

Johnson's travails only matter because they prevent Fleury from resting more. If Fleury gets hurt in the playoffs, it won't matter who the backup is. The Penguins would be hard-pressed to beat anybody.

So, stick with Johnson. He's come through before, and more recently than 2007-08.

Maybe we overrate the Penguins. They have precious little scoring depth, two of their top four defensemen (Martin and Zbynek Michalek) are underachieving, and Sidney Crosby has played just eight games since Jan. 5, 2011.

The Penguins are 12-11 in their past 23. That defines treading water.

But with Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal anchoring the center, a superb defense tandem in Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik, winger James Neal having a breakout year, good special teams and Fleury always a threat to string wins together, the season still holds promise.

Two players Shero could consider acquiring are Buffalo center Paul Gaustad and Carolina defenseman Bryan Allen.

Gaustad, 6-foot-5, is a prototype checking center who kept Malkin relatively quiet Sunday. Allen, also 6-5, blocks shots and stays at home. Each will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end. Each packs a manageable cap hit.

Eric Tangradi plus a draft pick, anyone?

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Monday, February 20, 2012

Penguins' answers within

Monday, February 20, 2012

Buffalo Sabres' Derek Roy (9) scores on Pittsburgh Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury (29) during the third period of an NHL hockey game in Buffalo, N.Y., Sunday, Feb. 19, 2012. Buffalo won, 6-2. (AP)

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Can you just picture Ray Shero cringing all through the Penguins' lifeless, often laughable 6-2 loss to the cellar-dwelling Buffalo Sabres on Sunday at First Niagara Center?

Can you imagine how tempted he must have been, with the NHL's trade deadline just a week away, to frantically tap away at his speed-dials in search of a skilled winger, a big defenseman, even a backup goaltender to replace the still-leaky Brent Johnson?

Yeah, I can see Shero cringing. Maybe even cursing.

But calling out of desperation?

No chance.

Shero didn't get to be the general manager who built a roster this solid — 33-21-5 despite leading the league in injuries and missing Sidney Crosby — by responding reflexively to one long afternoon. Or even a lackluster stretch, such as the 4-4-1 run since that eight-game winning streak ended.

This is the GM who watched and waited a full year to acquire winger James Neal in the franchise's best trade since Craig Patrick's pickup of Alexei Kovalev in 1998, then went through six weeks of talks to sign Neal on Sunday to a six-year, $30 million extension.

The man knows what he's doing.

Which is why I'll be fine if, as I'm expecting, the Penguins aren't active at the deadline for the first time in Shero's career.

This is what Shero told me shortly before faceoff: "We're playing well, getting healthy, and that means more than anything. If I could get a 40-goal scorer or something that makes sense, I'd do that. But ..."

He didn't complete the thought, but he didn't need to. The current trade market, as viewed by this front office, ranges from awful to abysmal. The only 40-goal type is Columbus' Rick Nash, and the cap-challenged Penguins aren't in on those talks. Defensemen are scarcer still. And goaltending couldn't be called a need with Marc-Andre Fleury as the starter.

Again, look past Sunday.

Assume that Crosby returns — Shero described the captain as "busting his behind" to do that — and check out the top three lines: Evgeni Malkin will stay between Neal and Chris Kunitz, unless the team loses its collective mind. Crosby could skate with Pascal Dupuis and Steve Sullivan. Jordan Staal could be back with Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. And this isn't taking into account that Dan Bylsma can mix and match, including bumping Staal up as he did a couple times Sunday.

All healthy, it's as good a group of forwards as any in the East.

As Shero suggested, another sniper would be welcome. Maybe even an older one, a la Gary Roberts or Bill Guerin. But I don't want to see another Alexei Ponikarovsky or Kovalev — or anyone named Alexei, really — added to sour things. Oh, and there isn't much on the rental market, either.

If the Penguins want to avoid more outcomes like Sunday, here are a few suggestions:

* Play like you mean it.

That's as embarrassing an effort as they've put out all winter, in stark contrast to the 6-4 victory 24 hours earlier in Philadelphia. Kris Letang correctly summarized it: "We didn't even show up."

Read more: Kovacevic: Penguins' answers within - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/columnists/s_782476.html#ixzz1mvoxfP2u

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Highlights: Sabres 6, Penguins 2

Most unusual day ends amid fun and laughter

Sunday, February 19, 2012

PHILADELPHIA, PA - FEBRUARY 18: Matt Cooke #24 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores a shorthanded goal at 13:57 of the second period against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Wells Fargo Center on February 18, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

PHILADELPHIA- It isn't every day that a hockey player stands up and brags about taking a tripping penalty. Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis did Saturday.

It really isn't every day that Penguins forward Matt Cooke is mentioned in the same sentence with franchise icon Mario Lemieux. "They're the same player, Mario and Cookie," goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury quipped.

Are you getting the idea the Penguins' room was filled with fun and frivolity after their 6-4 beating of the Philadelphia Flyers?

"I don't know, my name has been there a bunch of times with Mario's lately," Cooke deadpanned. "Not for good reasons."

You remember Cooke's 17-game suspension at the end of last season?

The one that threatened his future with the Penguins after team owner Lemieux's very public stance against gratuitous violence in the NHL?

Lemieux and the Penguins are mighty glad they stuck with Cooke, who is in the news this morning for the best of reasons. He had his first two-goal game since the opener Oct. 6 in Vancouver and his first three-point day of the season. He scored his second goal when the Penguins were down two men because of penalties. It was the first 3-on-5 goal for the franchise since Lemieux did it against the Los Angeles Kings nearly 24 years to the day.

Hence, the Fleury observation.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/12050/1211239-87.stm#ixzz1mphJHEP8

Highlights: Penguins 6, Flyers 4

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Next step for Pirates is losing with style

By Jeff Passan
January 13, 2012

2011 record: 72-90
Finish: Fourth place, NL Central
2011 final payroll: $51.8 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $44 million
Yahoo! Sports’ offseason rank: 27th

Andrew McCutchen celebrates his first inning solo home run with Neil Walker against the Houston Astros during the game on September 7, 2011 at PNC Park. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images North America)

To capitalize on the steps the Pittsburgh Pirates took last year, they went into this offseason with a plan: emulate the Houston Astros’ “Killer B’s” core of the 1990s. Fine, maybe not. Though what other explanation can the Pirates put forth after their big offseason maneuvers consisted of signing Clint Barmes, Erik Bedard and Rod Barajas – or, as they’re regarded around the sport, Blah, Blah and Blah.

Serviceable pieces they are. The centerpiece of a plan for a team that swears it’s committed to breaking a streak of losing seasons that could reach two decades this year? Not quite. The Pirates work within a budget. That budget calls for skinflint upgrades, if you want to call them that. Owners of bad teams have two choices: spend money in hopes of improving and drawing fans or skimp on payroll and pray management can fix things on the cheap. Pittsburgh owner Bob Nutting hails from school No. 2.

And so the Pirates gave Barmes $10.5 million (!) to play shortstop the next two years, Bedard $4.5 million for his cocktail of solid pitching and disabled-list frustration, and Barajas $4 million to not get on base. The Pirates also placed a $1.75 million bet on Nate McLouth not having lost all semblance of baseball skills, as it looked he had over the last 2½ years.

That is more than $20 million to essentially stay the same. Ronny Cedeno may not have Barmes’ pop; he also signed with the Mets for $1.1 million and has every bit the glove. Bedard replaces Paul Maholm, a homegrown player who commanded only a quarter-million more and offsets Bedard’s ceiling with consistency. Barajas certainly can catch the ball better than Ryan Doumit; he can’t hit like him, and Doumit went to Minnesota for $1 million less.

Gone, too, are Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee, the remnants of last season’s ill-advised go-for-it push in July. The Pirates sensed the NL Central was winnable when they were 53-47 and tied for first place July 25. They finished 24 games behind Milwaukee.

And neither of the three Blahs nor McLouth nor Casey McGehee, acquired in a trade for Jose Veras, can help change that. The Pirates exit this offseason as they entered it: hampered by, for lack of a better term, their utter Pirateness.

Reality check

The problem here, of course, is that the beginnings of a decent core do exist in Pittsburgh. Any team with Andrew McCutchen in center field cannot claim a bare cupboard. Neil Walker is among the 10 best second basemen in the major leagues. McCutchen is 25. Walker is 26. And by essentially throwing 2012, the Pirates are wasting a season of their best players’ primes and bringing them one year closer to free agency.

Pittsburgh needs to lock up McCutchen and Walker soon, which necessitates Nutting spending money, to which he has shown an aversion bordering on phobia. If Nutting throws a Justin Upton-level deal at McCutchen – six years and $60 million, buying out three years of free agency – it would be tough to turn down and guarantee the Pirates an All-Star-caliber center fielder through his prime. Walker’s case is a bit dodgier, especially since he remains a year from arbitration, but no harm in trying. The Pirates’ savvy spending in the draft and international free agency is no longer possible thanks to the new collective-bargaining agreement, which could free up a nice chunk of change for McCutchen and Walker.

Because with those two anchoring the middle of the field as well as the lineup, the Pirates can start building. Maybe Pedro Alvarez decides being fat isn’t as desirable as not being fat and regains his power swing. Perhaps Jose Tabata evolves from soft-swinging corner outfielder to something valuable. Who knows? Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton could be late bloomers in the Pirates’ rotation, not severe regression candidates because of their awful strikeout rates. Relying on Morton in particular is risky on account of his high walk rate and almost-unsustainable home run rate.

Unless outfielder Alex Presley is a giant anomaly – the slugging 5-foot-9 outfielder – he’ll prove himself little more than a fourth outfielder in April. By which time the Pirates could again find themselves in a familiar spot toward the bottom of the division. Even if some talent feathers its way through the roster, Pittsburgh is dreadful in the field and bad on the basepaths. Its pitchers don’t strike out anyone and its hitters strike out way too much, especially for a group without the home run totals that can make Ks palatable.

“They’re sloppy,” one scout said, and that sounds about right. It takes institutional inadequacy to go 20 years without a winning season, and part of it goes back to the culture. If a team knows it can’t spend money, it must not just preach but practice the things in its realm: the defense, the baserunning, the strikethrowing – the fundamentals. It’s incumbent upon manager Clint Hurdle and GM Neal Huntington to stress this. Because even if they’re going to lose for another year – and they will – the Pirates don’t have to look like a mess doing it.


Hurry up, Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole. Doesn’t matter that Taillon is 20 and Cole 21, that Taillon has a year of professional ball under his belt and Cole not a single pitch. They are the best pitching-prospect duo in baseball, and even if odds say they’re not both going to be aces, the possibility of slotting them at the top of a rotation for six years makes the Pirates’ future far more palatable. Cole is the likelier of the two to reach the big leagues this season, perhaps less than a year after Pittsburgh chose him No. 1 in the draft. Taillon, the No. 2 pick in 2010, needs seasoning after spending last season in Class A. His arrival is likelier late 2013 or 2014. Still, it’s something, and with outfielders Josh Bell, Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman, plus more starting-pitching possibilities, the Pirates do boast one of the better farm systems in baseball. They’ve shown interest in Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, too, though at his expected $40 million price tag? Don’t forget: These still are the Pirates.

Pirates in Haiku

Two more losing years
And Pittsburgh’s futility
Can legally drink

NL Central spring training preview

By Cliff Corcoran
February 16, 2012

Pittsburgh Pirates

The Big Question: Is Pedro Alvarez still a future star?

A year ago, Alvarez was coming off the big September surge that capped his rookie season, and was ripe with all of the promise one might expect from a slugger who was the second-overall pick in the 2008 draft and a top 10 prospect in all of baseball prior to the 2010 season.

In 2011, however, Alvarez didn't hit at all. He was batting .208/.283/.304 with just two home runs when a quadriceps injury shelved him for two months, and he was even worse after he returned, hitting just .173/.260/.273 with two more taters over his final 124 plate appearances, which surrounded a brief late-August demotion.

There was no silver-lining to that performance. Alvarez didn't just struggle, he was the 10th-worst hitter in baseball out of the 306 with 250 or more plate appearances last year, posting a 56 OPS+ (100 is average) that matched Adam Dunn's mark in his disastrous debut season with the White Sox. Alvarez is now 25 and a career .230/.304/.392 hitter in the major leagues. This is a player who was supposed to be a pillar of the Pirates rebuilding, a player many ranked ahead of Andrew McCutchen as a prospect. One has to wonder if that potential is still there, or, if not, how much of it remains.

The Big Battle: Leftfield

After making the All-Star team and winning an (undeserved) Gold Glove as the Pirates centerfielder in 2008, Nate McLouth was traded to the Braves in 2009 and hit just .229/.335/.364 in parts of three seasons with Atlanta. The Pirates brought McLouth back on a one-year deal this winter, and he'll likely challenge Alex Presley for the leftfield job this spring, though the 26-year-old Presley should prove victorious.

The Big Prospect: Gerrit Cole

The top pick in the 2011 draft is just one of three Pirates prospects, along with fellow righties Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia, who could grow up to be legitimate major league aces. However, Cole, who made his professional debut in the Arizona Fall League after signing with the Pirates, is the only one of the three who will be in major league camp this spring.

A solid 6-foot-4, the 21-year-old Cole can hit triple-digits on the radar gun, compliments that heat with a wicked slider and above-average changeup and expects to be on the fast track to the major leagues, starting with a full-season assignment in April.

Read more: http://sportsillustrated.cnn.com/2012/writers/cliff_corcoran/02/16/spring.training.preview.nl.central/index.html#ixzz1mjkdWLkZ

Photo: Matt Freed/Post-Gazette

Friday, February 17, 2012

A.J. deal will pay for Pirates

Friday, February 17, 2012

Seems there are two prominent schools of thought around here regarding the Pirates' pursuit of A.J. Burnett from the New York Yankees:

1. The Pirates will blow this. They won't meet the Yankees' demands, and they'll fall short again.

2. The Pirates will blow this. They'll overpay for this guy, and he'll be Matt Morris II.

Whichever result, obviously, will be catastrophic to the point of collapsing PNC Park.

Or everyone can just relax.

This will get done, as soon as this weekend.

And when it does, it will have been a bold, sharp major-league move by a franchise hardly known for either.

This is how the trade will go: The Yankees will cover roughly $20 million of the $33 million Burnett is owed over the final two seasons of his contract. The Pirates will cover the other $13 million. And because they'll cover so much, they'll part with no more than a couple of Class A prospects, neither among the system's best.

That's it.

The Yankees had pressed the Pirates to pay less money in hopes of getting a major-league player — Garrett Jones — or a top prospect. But the Pirates, admirably determined to give up money rather than baseball talent, never flinched.

They've known, no matter what silliness the Yankees floated through the media, that no other teams were pursuing Burnett at this level.

They've also known that the Yankees could use the cash. That sounds crazy when talking about the team with a $200 million payroll. But things are different in the Bronx under Hal and Hank Steinbrenner. There are limits to what general manager Brian Cashman can spend. Cashman's priority is to sign other players soon, and he needs the money that's freed up by this trade.

This is all good work by the Pirates, notably Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington, setting up this scenario and being set to capitalize on it.

The more meaningful measure of the trade, of course, will be how Burnett pitches here.

If he puts up ERAs of 5.26 and 5.15, as he did the past two seasons in New York, then this will be just another Lyle Overbay/Matt Diaz mess of an evaluation by the Pirates. But I don't think that will happen, and I'll unleash my inner stats geek to illustrate why:

>> Burnett is 35, and his fastball is down from a career-peak 99 mph into the 92-93 mph range. But he still struck out 173 in 2011, which is 31 more than any Pirates pitcher in the past four seasons.

>> His past four seasons have reaped inning totals of 221, 207, 187 and 190. The Pirates have gotten only two 200-inning performances in that time. Ask Clint Hurdle how much innings matter to a manager.

>> The new Yankee Stadium, a bandbox of a ballpark, allowed the third-most home runs in the majors in 2011. PNC Park, which always has favored pitchers (except when Albert Pujols was up), allowed the sixth fewest. Burnett allowed a career-worst 31 home runs last season, at least some of which would have been outs at PNC.

Read more: Kovacevic: A.J. deal will pay for Pirates - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/sports/s_782056.html#ixzz1meUg7kyN

Photo: Antonelli/Daily News

Thursday, February 16, 2012

2012 MLB Season Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

By Jonah Keri

February 14, 2012


Pirates fans might not want to hear about rebuilding anymore, not after two decades of losing seasons. But the Pirates scored another bumper crop of talent in the 2011 amateur draft, and few if any teams now boast a deeper stable of high-impact pitching prospects. The Bucs are a still a long shot to contend this year. But you'll see good baseball again in Pittsburgh in the not-too-distant future. And once the Pirates graduate all that young talent to the majors, they'll have a chance to stay good for a while. Patience.


(Bill James projections: AVG/OBP/SLG, wOBA)

RF Jose Tabata (.283/.349/.387, .328)
LF Alex Presley (.301/.346/.445, .345)
CF Andrew McCutchen (.277/.368/.455, .360)
2B Neil Walker (.273/.332/.426, .329)
1B Garrett Jones (.261/.325/.451, .338)
3B Pedro Alvarez (.252/.332/.429, .333)
SS Clint Barmes (.248/.303/.393, .300)
C Rod Barajas (.224/.274/.403, .288)

The next time you find yourself complaining about the slow pace of games, save some love for the Pirates, who've done their part to end games quicker by signing Barmes and Barajas in the offseason, thereby ensuring three automatic outs at the bottom of the order. At least the rest of the lineup holds some promise. Presley enjoyed a nice little breakout season last year, if 52 games and a batting line enhanced by a .349 batting average on balls in play can be called a breakout. Tabata continued to show enough speed and on-base ability to be a half-decent leadoff option, even as his power potential remained dormant as he passed his 23rd birthday. McCutchen's developing into one of the best young players in baseball, and might have another gear or two left in his climb.

The difference-maker here, though, could be Alvarez. The no. 2 overall pick four years ago broke in with a strong rookie campaign in 2010, strafing right-handed pitching and posting an Isolated Slugging (slugging percentage minus batting average, a more complete gauge of power output than just home runs) over .200. But he fell apart last season, succumbing to injuries and a general case of the sucks. A week past his 25th birthday, Alvarez still has ample time to reclaim his power stroke and become the middle-of-the-order beast the Pirates hoped to get. If his cruddy defense eventually pushes him to first, the Bucs will live with it, so long as he's also blasting 30-plus bombs a year.


(Bill James projections: IP, FIP)

Charlie Morton (176, 4.01)
Erik Bedard (122, 3.31)
James McDonald (170, 4.07)
Kevin Correia (149, 4.32)
Jeff Karstens (135, 4.38)

Sadly, the notion that there's one word in Mandarin that means both "crisis" and "opportunity" is a myth. In English, however, there is one term that covers both: Pirates rotation. For a team trying to keep payroll in check while still tossing out some intriguing arms, the Pirates have done a nice job assembling this starting five. Bedard is the consummate wild card, a very good pitcher who can still strike out a batter an inning in a good season, but also a lock to miss a bunch of starts. The question every year is how many. He made 24 of them last year, enough to rack up 2.4 Wins Above Replacement for his two employers; the Bucs landing him on a one-year, $4.5 million deal makes all kinds of sense. Beyond Bedard Injury Watch, you've got Morton, the de facto staff ace who might miss a month or more owing to offseason hip surgery; McDonald, the talented but erratic right-hander who can't even manage six innings per start; Correia, the token veteran filler who's there to eat whatever innings he can before opponents start whacking his subpar stuff around; and Karstens, the ex-Yankee who pitched a hell of a lot better (and luckier) than anyone expected last season.

That is, unless the Pirates get A.J. Burnett. Who would ... wait for it ... likely give the team a nice boost. Look past Burnett's losing record and five-plus ERA over the past two years and consider this: He's been pitching in one of the worst possible environments for any right-handed pitcher, much less one who struggles with command and leaves balls up in the zone where they can be mashed. A move to the kinder, gentler NL Central, and away from the pitcher's horror show that is Yankee Stadium's short porch, would help. Burnett still throws in the low-to-mid 90s and still snaps off one of baseball's prettiest curveballs when he's on. If this deal costs next to nothing as expected, the Pirates get a badly needed jolt of depth for their rotation, with a hint of actual upside. In a perfect world, the Pirates get Good A.J., Bedard finally strings together 200 (great) innings, Morton comes back quicker than expected, and McDonald finally has his long-awaited breakout.

More realistically, it's another trial run to see what they have, while the Bucs wait for top prospects Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon, & Co. to advance through the system. Burnett aside, Edwin Jackson would've offered a nice bridge from present to future, but he took a one-year deal to play for the Nats rather than the three years, $30 million the Pirates offered him. Now, as ever, premium homegrown pitching talent is the commodity every team would kill to have; for a team like the Pirates that can't even give its money away (at least not yet), it's even more vital.


McCutchen. Seems strange to predict a breakout for a player who was worth nearly six wins last season. But in his three big league seasons, McCutchen has now posted impressive power (23 homers, .198 ISO last year), a solid contact rate (84.6 percent), and big walk totals (89) … just not all in the same season. He's still just 25, and you can feel a consolidation season coming, where all of McCutchen's offensive skills come together and he challenges for league MVP honors, his team's record be damned.


Alvarez and McDonald join McCutchen in posting breakout seasons, the bullpen gets big results from pitchers not named Joel Hanrahan, Bedard stays healthy, Burnett's revitalized, and Neal Huntington pushes his chips in at the deadline following a surprising first three months. We're less than a week away from pitchers and catchers reporting, and no one yet knows whether or not we'll have two wild cards per league. If we do, and all of this clicks for the Bucs, we could see a pennant atmosphere by the three rivers for the first time since Kevin Young's heyday.


Morton and Bedard can't manage 200 innings between them, Burnett pitches like the guy he's made out to be by every WFAN caller, Alvarez turns in a second straight bust of a season, Barmes and Barajas make outs so frequently that the commissioner rules they be exiled to Altoona In The Best Interests Of The Game, and McCutchen demands a trade, eventually landing in the Bronx in exchange for Bubba Crosby and the 56,182 bottles of sunscreen confiscated by overzealous ushers since new Yankee Stadium opened. Great for the fight against skin cancer, not so good for long-suffering Buc believers.

Highlights: Ducks 2, Penguins 1

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Pittsburgh Pirates: A.J. Burnett Situation Showcases Lack of Direction

February 12, 2012

Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug

As I alluded to in my most recent article, the Pittsburgh Pirates have been so terrible for so long that even when they want to bring in free agents that could potentially help reverse the team’s plight, the players don’t want to come here. It’s a Catch-22 of baseball boobery. As obvious as this seems, I doubt the Pirates actually expected this response; I believe they stubbornly assumed they could run a team however they liked, and then immediately flip a switch, and mid-range free agents would find Pittsburgh just as desirable as any other MLB franchise. Clearly not the case.

Which brings us to the A.J. Burnett trainwreck that is unfolding before our eyes. For some unexplained reason, Burnett never included the Pirates as one of the teams on his “do not trade” list during his last contract extension with the Yankees. As I write this at 6AM on Sunday morning, Burnett is not yet a Pirate- the deal seems hung up on the Pirates’ unwillingness to part with platoon OF Garrett Jones.  Regardless of whether Jones ends up in Pinstripes, at this point, my *guess* is that Burnett will be a Pirate by the start of Spring Training: The Yankees appear desperate to unload him and as much of his contract albatross as they can, while the Pirates suddenly seem desperate to add another SP, despite having all offseason to do so.

These negotiations uncomfortably showcase the overall failure of GM Neal Huntington and club President Frank Coonelly’s tenures, and baldly exemplify the team’s TOTAL lack of direction. Consider any of the following:

1. At the start of the offseason, the Pirates let SP Paul Maholm walk for absolutely nothing, refusing to pick up his 2 contract option years, because they deemed them too expensive. Not only were the option years worth about what Burnett is making now per season, but the Pirates themselves agreed to the amounts when they negotiated the original extension with Maholm!

2. Over the past 3 seasons, A.J. Burnett has the highest ERA in baseball among SP who have made at least 90 starts. He’s 35, making $10MM+ over each of the next 3 seasons, and has a well-documented attitude to boot. If these aren’t warning flags, I don’t know what are. This potentially could be worse than former GM Dave Littlefield’s Matt Morris mistake, which helped get the GM fired.

3. Maholm (105 ERA+) was by far the better pitcher last season, and is 5 years younger than Burnett (86 ERA+). For a team that’s supposed to be rebuilding with youth, Neal Huntington has spent his entire offseason acquiring guys well on the wrong side of 30.

Which brings me to the Pirates’ ”internal options.” Over the past 4 years, both Huntington and Coonelly have puffed their chests about building up the “depth” of the entire Pirates’ minor league system. They’ve made unpopular trades to build up this “depth”, and they’ve now had their hand in 4 full drafts to reinforce this “depth.” So where’s the depth?

4. The Pirates wasted $11,000,000 on 2 years of subpar, 33-year old SS Clint Barmes, because there were no internal options.

5. The Pirates wasted $4,000,000-7,500,000 (option year) on 36-year old C Rod Barajas, because there were no internal options.

6. The Pirates TRIED to pay 36-year old 1B Derrek Lee between $5,000,000-7,000,000, because they felt there were no internal options (although I personally would rather them simply give AAA 1B Matt Hague an audition than waste money on veterans). They’re now working out 36-yeard old 1B Dmitri Young for the same reason, despite 1B being the easiest position on the diamond to find young power bats. And by the way, Young hasn’t played a MLB game since 2008…so the Pirates have that going for them.

7. In Huntington’s only potentially good free agent acquisition of the offseaon, they signed 33-year old SP Erik Bedard, because there were no internal options. They continue to pursue A.J. Burnett because there are no internal options, despite Huntington and Coonelly always emphasizing the importance of building up starting pitching depth.

8. The remainder of their rotation as it now stands- Charlie Morton, Jeff Karstens, James McDonald, Kevin Correia- consists entirely of players brought in from other organizations via trade (Morton, Karstens, McDonald), or signed as free agents (Correia). Huntington has yet to have 1 starting pitcher he drafted pitch meaningful innings for the Pirates.

9. The same can be said for the Pirates’ bullpen. In fact, the only homegrown arm currently projected to come north with the team in spring- RP Tony Watson- was a Dave Littlefield draftee in 2007.

10. And despite Littlefield being the worst GM in recent MLB history (though Huntington is surely giving him a run for his money), until Pedro Alvarez wakes up and slims down, the Pirates’ two best regulars- CF Andrew McCutchen and 2B Neil Walker- are both Dave Littlefield draftees.

11. Out of the players projected to start in the field for the Pirates, 3 are Littlefield draftees (OF Alex Presley), while only 1 was picked during Huntington’s tenure (Alvarez).

12. Despite their apparent willingness to spend MILLIONS on aging, unproductive veterans, the Pirates have spent the entire offseason blackballing star OF Andrew McCutchen on a contract extension, as I wrote about here and here and here and here.

This team is terribly managed. Despite allusions to the contrary, the Pirates have little to no depth in the upper levels of their minor league system. (In fact, the Bucs’ best upper level prospect- OF Starling Marte- was once again a Dave Littlefield draftee. For a GM regarded as a terrible talent evaluator, Neal Huntington sure does seem to have his hands full trying to match Littlefield’s “success.”)

Further, the club clearly makes moves that directly contradict their supposed direction. They’ve spent the offseason stocking the roster with old, declining veterans, yet gush frequently about the team’s youth movement. They let younger, productive players like Maholm and C Ryan Doumit walk for nothing, only to turn around and sign expensive retreads in their stead.

Some wonder whether the timing of this most recent indulgence (prior to Burnett, the Pirates attempted to give both Edwin Jackson and Roy Oswalt paydays in the $10,000,000 range, only to be rebuffed) came from Major League Baseball starting to put heat on the Nutting ownership for yet another league-low payroll. Obviously, it’s only speculation at this point, but the timing certainly is interesting.

Regardless, this team is a trainwreck, and we’re about to see the results of it for 6 months straight.

Thanks for reading?

Monday, February 13, 2012

Pirates must get Burnett

By Mark Madden
Beaver County Times
February 13, 2012

The Pirates need to get pitcher A.J. Burnett from the New York Yankees.

Keeping outfielder/first baseman Garrett Jones in the process seems a good idea. Jones is a mere platoon player, and the Yankees want him. If Jones leaves, though, it opens up a hole on a team already too reliant on patchwork.

But if you've got to deal Jones, do it. If you can substitute a mid-level prospect at penalty of picking up more of Burnett's salary, better yet. The main thing is to get Burnett.

Do it for the rotation. If Burnett and Erik Bedard pitch to their potential, the Pirates' starting pitching will be even deeper than last year when it was the team's strength.

Do it for the union. If the Pirates keep Jones and pay Burnett $6 million per while the Yankees pay him $10.5 million per, it could get the Pirates' payroll over $50 million. That might keep the Major League Baseball Players Association from asking where all that revenue-sharing cash goes.

Do it for the fans. Burnett isn't Christy Mathewson, but he's a proven name from a big-time club. He's a legit No. 1 starter, at least by Pirates standards. Burnett would create a buzz.

Do it because there aren't any other choices. Pitcher Edwin Jackson turned down a three-year, $30 million deal with the Pirates to take a one-year, $11 million contract with Washington. First baseman Derrek Lee declined arbitration with the Pirates. That would have earned him at least $8 million. Lee would rather retire than play in Pittsburgh. Pitcher Roy Oswalt wouldn't even engage the Pirates in discussion.

No one wants to play for the Pirates. Ergo, the Pirates must take hostages. Force the issue via trade.

Burnett is no Cy Young contender. He was 11-11 with a 5.15 ERA last season. To some degree, Burnett was victimized by the hitter's paradise that is the new Yankee Stadium and also by pitching in the ultra-competitive AL East. He's 35, but his fastball can still hit the mid-90s, his stuff can be filthy and he pitched 190.1 innings last campaign.

Would Burnett go in the tank once trapped in "baseball hell"? Could be. But many feel Burnett would prosper in a low-pressure, low-expectations environment. The NL Central may be the weakest division in baseball now that Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder have departed.

If the Pirates are convinced they've drafted and signed the right young pitchers, wouldn't Burnett be an ideal two-year stopgap? In theory, Burnett would eventually give way to Gerrit Cole. Perhaps the Pirates could profit by swapping Burnett to a contender at the 2013 trade deadline.

It would be wonderful - heck, shocking - if the Pirates made a move that clearly and immediately helped the team. It would peel a layer of stink off the never-ending con.

The Yankees' big interest is dumping Burnett, who no longer figures in their plans. Believe it or not, the Yankees would like to chop some payroll. They're sick of the luxury tax.

Given that - and given that no team besides the Pirates appears too interested in Burnett - the Pirates should get the best terms possible when acquiring Burnett.

But they must get Burnett. Opportunities to get a proper big-leaguer are few and far between for the Pirates.

Then again, does the name Matt Morris ring a bell?

Mark Madden hosts a radio show 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WXDX-FM (105.9).

Steelers disrespecting Ward

Monday, February 13, 2012

Just to get this on the record: I won't complain if the Steelers release Hines Ward, given his performance last season, the three young receivers ahead of him and that he'll turn 36 next month. I also won't complain if the Steelers keep Ward by securing a huge pay cut from the $4 million he's due in 2012.

These aren't easy calls for the front office, but either would be the right call from the football standpoint.

If only someone can find the fortitude to make it.

And make it The Steelers Way.

Remember that?

Goes something like this ...

Player X — let's call him Franco Harris, Greg Lloyd, Levon Kirkland or Joey Porter — looks to have reached the finish line.

Coach Y — let's call him Chuck Noll or Bill Cowher — addresses that player respectfully but forthrightly: Thanks for everything. It's time to part ways.

Team Z elsewhere might give that player a chance, or the player might choose to retire. Either way, the Steelers move on. And, just as important, they maintain their reputation for being first-class in these affairs.

So how to explain the classless way they're treating Ward?

The day after the playoff loss in Denver, Mike Tomlin declined to address the Ward topic, unless you count, "We love Hines." There was no commitment nor a timetable to establish one. And that's no stunner. When I asked Tomlin about Ward's demotion in November, Tomlin abruptly ended the interview. He's been hypersensitive to this for months.

Team president Art Rooney II did address Ward in his end-of-season meeting with reporters, saying, "You want it to end the right way whenever it ends, but it's a two-party decision. We'll evaluate how we feel about it over the next few weeks."

That at least was something, if only a hint that the Steelers might take Ward back if he takes that huge pay cut.

So why, according to Ward's representatives, has there been no formal contact from the team in the month and change since season's end?

And, way, way above that, who from the Steelers could have had the audacity to leak word to NFL Network — with the news broken Friday night by veteran reporter Jason La Canfora — that they don't want Ward back for 2012?

Whoever it was, that person or persons should look Ward in the eye and apologize.

I'm not getting into guessing the source of the leak. Only a handful in the Steelers' upper hierarchy would have hard knowledge of Ward's future, but there's still no way to narrow it down. Or, for that matter, to know if the leak was aimed at pressuring Ward to drop his price to rock bottom.

Again, if that's the goal, fine. The Steelers have big-time cap issues.

But to do it like this?

It wouldn't be the first time for such a tactic: In 2009, La Canfora wrote in an NFL.com chat that the Steelers were considering cutting Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton. That didn't happen, of course. But Hampton was aware of the report and, unlike the previous year, he showed up for training camp in good shape.

If the mission was to motivate Hampton, it was accomplished.

This is different, though. It's not about calories or contracts or other tales that have navigated this particular pipeline.

This is Hines Ward.

This is the franchise's most accomplished receiver, a two-time Super Bowl champion, a heart-and-soul contributor on and off the field. This is someone who, even when reduced to responding to this report through his Facebook account, wrote that he'll accept less money to "make sure" he stays with the Steelers.

He deserves some respect.

If Ward isn't done, if he can still help the receiving corps, if pending free agent Jerricho Cotchery is as unlikely as it appears to re-sign for more duty as a No. 4, then tell Ward as much. Work something out promptly.

If Ward is done, then tell him that sometime soon. Face to face. Man to man.

Used to be The Steelers Way.

Norris Trophy as top defenseman soon will come Letang's way

By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
February 13, 3012

PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 11: Kris Letang #58 of the Pittsburgh Penguins scores past Ondrej Pavelec #31 of the Winnipeg Jets during the game at Consol Energy Center on February 11, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

The Tampa Bay Lightning played at Consol Energy Center April 27 and beat the Penguins, 1-0, in Game 7 of their first-round Stanley Cup playoff series. I remember walking out of the grand building thinking Penguins defenseman Kris Letang played a lousy game to complete a lousy series in a lousy second half of the NHL season.

The Lightning was back in town Sunday night for the first time since that frustrating game and took a 4-2 beating from the Penguins. I walked into the cold, snow and ice thinking that, if Letang keeps playing this well, the Penguins are going to have a much deeper playoff run this spring.

I mean, really.

How good has Letang become?

I know he was a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate midway through last season when he had six goals and 30 assists after 41 games. But his game suffered badly after Sidney Crosby went out for the season in early January with concussion-like symptoms and then when Evgeni Malkin was lost for the season in early February with a knee injury. He had just two goals in the final 41 games, none in the final 25. He didn't score a goal in the series against the Lightning.

But this February, Letang's game is soaring in the other direction. He had a goal and two assists Sunday night to complete a three-goal, three-assist weekend. In his 11 games since he returned to the lineup after missing 21 games with a concussion, he has five goals and five assists. Not coincidentally, the Penguins went 8-2-1.

Here's one final stat for you:

Letang's eight goals in 33 games match his season total in 82 games last season.

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/12044/1209885-87.stm#ixzz1mGJpq55D

Highlights: Penguins 4, Lightning 2

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Kunitz invaluable, even when timing is less than perfect

By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
February 12, 2012

PITTSBURGH, PA - FEBRUARY 11: Chris Kunitz #14 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates his second period goal with James Neal #18 against the Winnipeg Jets during the game at Consol Energy Center on February 11, 2012 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

Evgeni Malkin played in his 400th NHL game Saturday and had five points, just another day at the office for the world's finest hockey player. James Neal continued his best season by scoring his 29th goal, a blistering shot off a faceoff win by Malkin that left coach Dan Bylsma raving about Neal's "trigger." Richard Park scored his 100th career goal. Jordan Staal played for the first time after missing 15 games with a knee injury and had a goal and perhaps the game's most significant assist on a goal by Dustin Jeffrey that started the climb out of an early 2-0 hole. The Penguins beat the Winnipeg Jets, 8-5, in a throwback, can't-anyone-here-play-defense? game at Consol Energy Center.

It figures Chris Kunitz would pick this day to have his first four-point game in more than two years.

No matter what he does, the man just can't find the spotlight.

That doesn't mean the Penguins don't appreciate Kunitz's sizable contributions. His linemates, Malkin and Neal, who started the day ranked Nos. 3 and 4 in goals in the NHL, marvel at the dirty work he does. So does Bylsma, who talked of how Kunitz's "speed and physicality" creates space and loose pucks for Malkin and Neal.

"I don't think you measure my game by the number of points I have," Kunitz said. "You measure it by the number of goals our line scores."

I'll buy that.

That means Kunitz has been terrific for the Penguins.

The Kunitz-Malkin-Neal line has been the NHL's best for most of the season.

It was nice to see Kunitz get his 15th goal Saturday, his first in nine games and his first power-play goal in 17. Malkin set him up at the blue line behind the Jets defense with a brilliant pass. Kunitz cruised down right wing and blasted a shot by goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who, after facing 39 shots, knows what it means to be under siege.

"You've got to capitalize on your opportunities," Kunitz said, shrugging. "I play with a couple of guys who like to shoot the puck."

Read more: http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/12043/1209716-87.stm#ixzz1mBbVcw00

Highlights: Penguins 8, Jets 5

Friday, February 10, 2012

Take the Pirates' money, please

Friday, February 10, 2012

Derrek Lee remains a free agent after his two-month stint with the Pirates in 2011. (AP)

It's one of the many torments of the Pirates' longest-suffering fans, the perpetual thought that somehow, some way, this will be the winter they make that big free-agent splash.

The thought was born, really, when PNC Park opened in 2001 with the promise of spending with the big boys.

That bought Derek Bell a yacht.

The thought was revived, at least a little, when Bob Nutting took control of ownership in 2007 and restored the team to fiscal responsibility with the promise that prudence would pay in the long run.

That bought Lyle Overbay for half a season, Byung-Hyun Kim for a month, Scott Olsen for a week, Craig Monroe for three spring bombs in a day, Eric Hinske, Matt Diaz, Ramon Vazquez, Bobby Crosby, Chris Gomez and probably 10 other non-shortstop shortstops.

Prudence might pay, but it sure can't play.

This winter, again, was going to be the one. The Pirates flirted with first place last summer, enough to spike attendance 20 percent. More ticket money would equal bigger spending. And it did, if you consider that new shortstop Clint Barmes' two-year, $10.5 million deal is the richest for any free agent in franchise history.

(No, seriously. It is.)

But this winter has brought a different harsh reality: The Pirates have tried to spend money above their still-too-low projected payroll of $48 million — actual big-splash money — only to see free agents turn up their noses.

It began in December when general manager Neal Huntington tendered salary arbitration to first baseman Derrek Lee in hopes of keeping Lee after a strong two-month finish. The process assures he would have made at least $7.25 million, same as 2011, and very likely more.

Lee rejected it for free agency.

He's still out there, too, waiting on any of his three or four preferred teams. The Pirates are not among those, and they don't expect that to change.

In the past week, it emerged that Huntington offered pitcher Edwin Jackson three years and $30 million. Not a misprint. Not an alternate reality. It really happened, and I can confirm that every penny was guaranteed, not couched in options or incentives. It would have been the team's biggest deal ever by a factor of three Barmeses.

Jackson rejected it in favor of one year at $11 million from another losing team, the Washington Nationals.

It's a wild risk on his part. On one hand, super-agent Scott Boras set up his client to reap a huge payday with a strong 2012, and Boras additionally can wave the Pirates' offer in front of any prospective buyers. On the other hand, every pitcher's next pitch can be his last.

Another quality arm, Roy Oswalt, is still on the market, also in Jackson's price range. He won't even pick up when Huntington calls.

Yeah, I can feel the eyes rolling right now. Some cynics don't believe the Pirates really made these overtures. Or, if the team did, it was just for PR purposes.

It's nonsense.

Lee's offer is easy to confirm, having been submitted through Major League Baseball's arbitration process.

Jackson's offer was solid, too. I've dealt with Boras for years. Be sure that if anyone publicly floated an inaccurate number attached to his name, even if it's off by a decimal point, he'd protest vociferously. He hasn't.

The Pirates aren't lying. And it isn't that they aren't trying, as some suggest. It's that top-tier talents still aren't buying what they're selling.

That has to change someday, obviously. But how?

"Honestly, we just need to keep playing better ball," Huntington told me by phone Wednesday after another late night at PNC Park. "When we win, we're going to see those results change, along with a lot of other things. We have a great pitcher-friendly ballpark. We have a lot of pieces in place. But the winning has to happen first. And it will. We still feel very good about the team we'll have in 2012."

Huntington should feel good about these rejections in at least one underlying way.

Say the Pirates raised the ante on Lee and offered $10 million. Say Lee accepted. There would be no reason to believe he's committed in the slightest. Remember, right now he'd rather retire than play in Pittsburgh. An extra million or two on top of his $80 million career earnings wouldn't change that sentiment much.

I enjoy watching Lee play baseball, but I don't want that here.

And say the Pirates had topped Washington's one-year offer to Jackson by a million or so. Same thing applies. You already know he was willing to walk away from $19 million to not play in Pittsburgh.

Maybe next winter.

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

Haley's hire a nutty narrative

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Nothing says you're nuts quite like aspiring to become the Steelers' offensive coordinator. Except, of course, accepting when they offer.

So, Todd Haley is nuts.

This became official when the team announced his hiring Tuesday by way of a written statement in which Haley described himself as "excited about the opportunity." You know, the opportunity to be an idiot when the Steelers lose, a bumbling obstacle when they win, and generally less popular than anyone in town except the county treasurer whose name you fill out on property-tax checks.

You've got to be nuts.

Just ask Bruce Arians, who dealt with all of that, won a Super Bowl, was fired by Art Rooney II and immediately latched on with the Indianapolis Colts to take the same job.

He's twice as nuts.

This whole offensive coordinator saga is nuts, actually, and it's hard to imagine it's playing out with a franchise as founded in non-nuttiness as the Steelers.

Let's start with Haley himself, whose behavior throughout his 15-year NFL coaching career has been outright certifiable.

How about the interview Haley granted to the Kansas City Star in December, shortly before the Chiefs fired him, in which he first swept a PR office for bugs he suspected were placed by upper management to spy on him?

Haley went on to tell that interviewer he also thought his cell phone, which he owned before joining that team, had been bugged by those same spies. Others have made similar accusations against the Chiefs' autocratic general manager, Scott Pioli, but no proof ever has emerged.

How about the relentless criticism in Kansas City that Haley was more about promoting himself than doing right by the Chiefs?

Jason Whitlock, Fox Sports' renowned Kansas City-based columnist, wrote in January 2011 that Haley tried to compensate for not having played football even at the high school level — back problems limited him to golf at Upper St. Clair — and that Haley was "too insecure to work in a professional manner with confident, competent people for an extended time." Indeed, Haley fired or pushed out two experienced offensive coordinators, Chan Gailey and Charlie Weis, in just two-plus seasons as head coach. Whitlock and others charged that those moves were made to get Haley more credit for the Chiefs' successes.

And, going off the rails a bit, how about in 2009, when Haley and his family sued a McDonald's for $1.7 million after his wife found a dead 6-inch rat in her salad?

Haley's lawyer riotously explained to the Associated Press that the ingestion of the rat caused "violent physical illness" — how do you lift a whole rat onto a fork to ingest anything? — that the store manager "brought them no comfort" when visiting their house, and that "the family needs closure" on the matter. They ended up securing an out-of-court settlement, not to mention securing Haley's perpetual place as the butt of rodent jokes.

Nuts, all of it.

And this is to say nothing of how Haley's spotty background won this job, how his pass-specialist pedigree will address Rooney's wish to bolster the run, how being passed over will sit with the rest of Mike Tomlin's staff and, in the biggest issue by far, how Haley might — or might not — coexist with Ben Roethlisberger. Haley has clashed with some of his best players, often in public.

Are the Steelers nuts, too?

Look, I had no issue with Rooney stepping in to make the call on Arians. Owners are right to get involved when they see something amiss, and they're right to help maintain a franchise identity. Rooney didn't want Arians in the role, and he got rid of him. That's only meddling if it happens regularly.

But to hire this guy?

Rooney had a longtime connection with Haley's father, Dick, the Steelers' famed personnel man from 1971-90, and this sure has the feel of that connection paying off. Yes, Tomlin interviewed Todd Haley. Yes, there's even a chance Tomlin liked him, though they appear to have zilch in common. But this process has Rooney's fingerprints from start to finish.

We know Tomlin wanted Arians back, but Rooney overruled him.

We know a few of Tomlin's players — notably Roethlisberger — pushed for quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner to get Arians' old job, and Rooney evidently overruled that, too.

It's hard to tell what anyone's thinking on the South Side. Tomlin has barely made a peep since the Steelers were Tebowed, and he wasn't quoted in the team's statement Tuesday. Haley himself was whisked in and out of headquarters without a spoken word.

Pardon this pun, especially if you're picking through a salad, but I smell a rat.