Q: Dejan, I have been a Pirates fan for longer than I'd like to remember, and I believe this Adam LaRoche trade can only make them much better. However, I do worry about Salomon Torres being designated the closer already. In the past few years, he has shown the disturbing trend of being just average at best until August rolls around, then he is lights out. Do you think the Pirates' brass will stick with him if he gets off to a bad start?
Joe Dornick of Aliquippa
KOVACEVIC: The Pirates can ill afford a bad start, as a team or at key individual positions such as closer. People can debate all they want about the value that teams attach to the closer role, but there is no disputing the impact of a poor closer: It shows up directly in the L column.
I see not only the early part of the season as being important for Torres, but also spring training. As Jim Tracy explained in the Sunday Hot Stove, the team's still-formative plan for Torres is to get him enough work in the Grapefruit League so that his arm feels sufficiently worn down to start the season.
Sounds ridiculous, I know. Usually, you try to keep the closer somewhat fresh in the spring. But Torres made 94 appearances last season, and he should not approach that number as a closer. And, as you point out, his best work tends to come late in the season, as his arm gets into a certain place where his sinker and splitter have that much more action on them. At least this one aspect, for those new to the game, is fairly common among sinker-ball pitchers: A tired arm equals more dive to the ball.
Will the Pirates stick by Torres? That almost surely will depend on the nature of his performance, as opposed to simply saving the game or not. If he is struggling with control, getting hit hard and the like, one gets the sense that management has plenty of confidence in Matt Capps -- maybe John Grabow, too -- to close some games. (They might, anyway, should there be a tight sequence of save situations.)
But it really needs to be stressed here that this is focusing solely on the possibility that Torres will falter. I happen to believe he will not.
His ERAs the past three seasons were 2.64, 2.76 and 3.28. As a closer in the final five weeks of last season, he was 12 for 13 in saves -- most of anyone in Major League Baseball in September and October -- with a 1.26 ERA in that span. And here is one I do not mention often enough: His ERA in 41 appearances after the All-Star break was 1.22, second-lowest among all MLB relievers. No, he is not a dominant strikeout guy, as was Mike Gonzalez, but we saw plenty in that stretch to indicate he can get swings and misses when needed. And we saw improved control, too.
Q: Do you feel that the arbitration salaries the Pirates offered to Shawn Chacon ($3.7 million) and Xavier Nady ($2.15 million) are valid, considering how they produced versus the offer to Freddy Sanchez ($2.15 million) and how he performed?
Gary Cunningham of Moundsville, W.Va.
KOVACEVIC: Based solely on last year, of course not, Gary. But that is not how the arbitration process works.
From what agents have told me, arbiters take into account a full body of work with, maybe, a slight extra weight given to the most recent season if only to display progress. That means that someone like Oliver Perez, for example, can go into his situation pointing almost as much to his magnificent 2004 as to the two fairly lousy seasons that followed. Arbiters value number of at-bats, inning counts, appearances and anything that illustrates value over time, almost as much as performance.
Now, throw Chacon out of this comparison because Chacon was in his third year of arbitration eligibility and is measured on a different scale. (Not to mention that his deal now is done, at $3.825 million.)
Sanchez and Nady each went into their arbitration with somewhat similar career numbers in terms of at-bats, Sanchez having 1,104 to Nady's 1,243. Sanchez has a far superior average, .313 to .270, and in doubles, 81-64. Nady leads in home runs, 42-11, and RBIs, 154-126.
What Sanchez has that Nady does not, of course, is the momentum of being fresh off a truly remarkable year. As one agent who does not represent Sanchez said to me last week, "I'd love to be the guy that takes Freddy into that hearing. Are you kidding me? The National League batting champ? I'd take my chances in that room."
It is a hard view, I think, to dispute. And I am guessing that, whether it is by amicable settlement or an arbiter's decision, Sanchez will wind up with a higher salary than Nady.
Until tomorrow ...