By John Franco
And then last night’s game happened. Chad Qualls allowed the Padres to tack on an insurance run in the bottom of the 8th inning of a close game, and Daniel McCutchen gave up a game-winning 2-run homer to Chase Headley. Without recording an out.
GM Neal Huntington chose to put Qualls and McCutchen on the roster in favor of keeping Justin Wilson and Kyle McPherson around. It’s possible that the moves were necessary because Wilson and McPherson both pitched Monday and wouldn’t be available Tuesday. I’m saying “possible” because they threw 19 and 26 pitches, respectively, so I don’t know for sure. They’re both ostensibly starters, so maybe back-to-back games aren’t in their repertoire right now.
Even if the moves were necessary, why replace the prospects with Qualls and McCutchen? Why not Bryan Morris, who has been lights out as a reliever for Indianapolis? Even Chris Leroux might have been a better choice if the Pirates needed an arm. Hell, I might have settled for Evan Meek.
Is Huntington placing too much value on “experience?” After all, the Pirates are in a pennant race, and you could argue that unproven players might fold under the pressure. McCutchen spent almost the entire 2011 season on the 25-man roster, so he did get to experience the highs and lows that were last season. And Qualls did make it to the playoffs with the Rays in 2010, as well as with the Astros in 2004 and 2005. Maybe there’s some “experience” there that Morris doesn’t have.
I can almost buy the McCutchen call-up, even if I don’t like seeing him in the bottom of the 10th inning of a must-win game. He wasn’t awful for last year’s Pirates (1.42 WHIP in 84.2 innings last year, despite a K/9 of just 5.0) and had good numbers for Indianapolis this year (56 innings, 8.0 K/9 and 2.2 BB/9). Having him as the last man out of the bullpen until Jeff Locke is eligible to come back up is almost defensible, except for the fact that it will inevitably going to lead to Clint Hurdle using him in a high-leverage situation, which probably won’t end well.
The move I really don’t like is Qualls. He was acquired for Casey McGehee in a swap of players who were going to be DFA’d anyway. Rather than buy out McGehee, the Pirates moved that money to Qualls. When the move happened, I hoped that Huntington realized that it was all sunk costs anyway, and would have a quick trigger finger on Qualls. But that hasn’t happened.
Qualls hasn’t been good this year (5.36 ERA, 4.91 FIP, 4.8 K/9 and .302 OAV), and keeping him around instead of Morris (75.1 innings, 8.7 K/9 and 1.9 BB/9 for Indianapolis) screams veteran favoritism. Or something. Between Morris, McPherson, Wilson and Locke, the Pirates have enough pieces to mix-and-match and find the one that works. Keeping Qualls when several better options are available is just giving Hurdle another grenade that might blow himself up instead of his opponents.
Over the last few seasons, even when they’ve been incompetent in most aspects of the game, the Pirates have done a good job of developing cheap, serviceable relievers and plugging them in productively. Judging by the talent they’ve assembled at AAA, it looks like they’ve done it again this year. Unfortunately, they’ve gotten gun-shy about trusting themselves at the worst possible time.