Diary of a long suffering Pirates fan: Rowdy Tellez feels like Akinori Iwamura 2.0

Iwamura had a bad year in 2010. Neil Walker was the beneficiary of that bad year. Is there a beneficiary in waiting over Rowdy Tellez's bad year?
Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates
Chicago Cubs v Pittsburgh Pirates / Jared Wickerham/GettyImages

One of the great decisions of the Neal Huntington era was to make Neil Walker a second baseman.  This conversion to second base took place early in the 2010 Triple-A regular season. Before that, Walker had been a third baseman. And before that, he had been a catcher. But Walker had never played second base in his professional career. In fact, during 2010 spring training, Walker appeared in 11 games for the Pirates, all at third base.  So somewhere between the end of spring training and the start of the Triple-A season, a decision was made to convert Walker to a second baseman.

There were many reasons for his moving to second base. The main reason was that Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates' prized number one draft pick from 2008, also played third base. He and Walker were both poised to be in Indianapolis in 2010, so there weren't enough third base positions to go around.

The second reason was that the other Pirates top infield prospects were still two to three years away from the majors, toiling in the various lower levels of the Pirates' minor league system. So the Pirates had a need for a versatile infielder who could play multiple positions, and Walker was being groomed to be that guy.

But a third reason also soon emerged in the 2010 season. And that was the play of then-Pirates second baseman Aki Iwamura. Iwamura was acquired in a trade with Tampa Bay in the winter of 2009.  The Pirates sent promising reliever Jesse Chavez (seriously) to Tampa Bay in exchange for Iwamura and his $4 million salary. Iwamura had once been a competent second baseman for the Tampa Bay Rays, but a torn knee ligament sustained in a freakish on-field accident involving the Marlins' Chris Coghlan in May of 2009 ended Iwamura’s 2009 season. Although there were question marks surrounding Iwamura’s health, given the severe nature of his injured knee, that did not stop the Pirates from pulling the trigger on the trade.

In retrospect, it was huge error on the Pirates' part to obtain Iwamura.  He was horrible at the plate and, due to the lingering effects of the knee injury, he had the fielding range of a turtle. But the Iwamura trade was very fortuitous for Neil Walker, for with each 0-for-4 game that Iwamura had, Pirates fans became more invested in how Walker's conversion to second base was going. Walker was hitting the snot out of the ball in 2010, but fans checking the box scores were doing so with one eye on the hitting results and the other eye on the fielding results, checking to see whether Walker had gotten through the game without an error.  Surprisingly, on most nights, he was error free.  The conversion to second base seemed to be going swimmingly.

There was thus a clamor among the fan base to cut ties with Iwamura and call up Walker pronto.  Huntington, in an effort to give Iwamura some time to turn things around, deflected the criticism by pronouncing that Walker was still learning the position and needed more time.  But it was obvious to everyone that, even if Walker had hands of stone, he would still have more range than Iwamura and would be better able to field the position.  And with Iwamura batting .182, the fan base had no doubts that Walker would be a more productive hitter than the incumbent. And so poor Aki Iwamura incurred the wrath of the fan base. The Pirates were in the midst of another 100 + loss season, and Iwamura was the poster child of the futility of the team, the front office and the owner. Seeing Iwamura hobbled by the lingering effects of the knee injury, fans rightly questioned what type of due diligence Huntington and his team had done before acquiring Iwamura.  Did they even check to see if, you know, he could run to cover second base on a basic 6-4 force out?

And so, as the month of May grew long, and the boos multiplied and, worse for the owner, attendance dropped significantly, even Huntington was unable to ignore what was so obvious to all. Walker was called up on May 25, and it was announced that he would be the starting second baseman for the foreseeable future. In the end, it turned out to be a happy ending for Pirates fans. Neil Walker proved to be a productive and competent second baseman for the Pirates from 2010 to 2015. And Iwamura…well, his story didn’t quite end with the call up of Walker. Iwamura was not designated for assignment by the Pirates until mid-June.  And there was an interesting story with that, which I will get to in a bit.

If it is not obvious to you by now, the similarities between Iwamura and Rowdy Tellez are striking. Both players were acquired in the offseason. Both players were coming off a season cut short by injury.  Both players, two years earlier, had been average to above-average players. And like Huntington in 2010, Ben Cherington is currently trying to defend his player amid the cries of outrage from the Pittsburgh fanbase.  “Are you not watching the same game that we are?” they seem to be saying.

Pirates made move on Aki Iwamura around the end of May. Makes you think about Rowdy Tellez, huh?

I don’t want to get into the reasons that Cherington believes that Tellez can turn it around.  Those have been documented by others. Hopefully, he is correct, and we fans will be praising Cherington’s patience when Tellez starts launching home runs over the Clemente Wall.  However, when I compare Tellez’s 2024 statistics to Iwamura’s 2010 statistics, I am even more struck by the similarities.

Iwamura:             .182 B.A.              .292 OBP             .558 OPS              54 OPS+

Tellez:                    .175 B.A.              .225 OBP             .467 OPS              37 OPS+

We have all heard of the Mendoza line. Iwamura was well below the Mendoza line in 2010. And Tellez, in 2024, is below the 2010 Iwamura line. Huntington was ultimately not rewarded by Iwamura for his patience. And Cherington can talk about all the unseen advanced metrics he wants, but I suspect that Tellez too, like Iwamura before him, will not reward his head honcho's patience.   

But, as mentioned above, the Iwamura story had a happy ending for Pirates fans. Iwamura’s failure at the plate gave us the gift of Neil Walker at second base. But Walker’s promotion to the Pirates was truly earned. We're not sure we can say the same for the Pirates' current crop of Tellez alternatives.

In 43 games at Indianapolis, Walker had a .321 batting average, a .392 OBP, and a .951 O.P.S. Playing second base, third base, first base and left field, Walker made only one error in those 43 games. He had more than earned the promotion to the major leagues and had certainly passed his second base audition.

In seeing the Tellez situation play out, I wonder if there is a happy ending to be had similar to Neil Walker's. In one sense, there may already be one on the MLB roster. Connor Joe has effectively taken over the first base position, and unlike Tellez, he is rewarding management with a fine season.

But Joe is a career platoon player. He has not been an everyday starter in his career. That is not to suggest that he cannot do it, nor is it to suggest that his platoon role is not important. It is. And his production this year has been eye opening. But if Joe proves to be just a platoon player, is there a player at Indianapolis that is shoving his way up for a promotion?  Perhaps a player, like Neil Walker in 2010, who despite learning a new position, is pounding the baseball?

The answer is possibly yes.  While it is a small sample size, Matt Gorski has been on a two-week tear at Indianapolis that is screaming, "Promote me!" Since May 16, Gorski has batted .348 with eight home runs. That’s eight home runs in 12 games. Gorski is not on the 40-man roster. So, if he gets called up, he would have to be added.  But like Neil Walker, Gorski plays multiple positions.  Drafted as an outfielder, Gorski has been getting reps at first base and all three outfield positions.

And perhaps that is the reason that Cherington is being patient with Tellez. Neil Walker had a 43 game stretch at Indianapolis to prove to Pirates management that he needed to be promoted. Gorski's hot stretch currently sits at 12 games. Management may simply wish to see a longer period of dominance over Triple-A pitching before pulling the trigger.

And if Gorski were to be called up, one would think that the Pirates would want to immediately insert his hot bat into the starting lineup.  After all, what good is a hot bat if it is brought to the majors and made to sit on the bench? But would Gorski be able to adapt to major league pitching right away? Would bringing him up result in similar production to Tellez? The easy answer is:  “It couldn’t be worse.” 

The Pirates have had a parade of high-performing Triple-A first basemen try their hands at being the team's starting first baseman. It has not ended well for most of them. Since 2010, we've encountered Jeff Clement, John Bowker, Andrew Lambo, Garrett Jones, Pedro Alvarez, Casey McGehee, Gaby Sanchez, Lyle Overbay, Ike Davis, Travis Ishikawa, Mike Morse, John Jaso, Josh Bell, José Osuna, Colin Moran, Phillip Evans, Will Craig, John Nogowski, Michael Chavis, Yoshi Tsutsugo, Carlos Santana, Alfonso Rivas, Ji-Man Choi and now Rowdy Tellez. Have I forgotten anybody?

Looking at that list, I am left to wonder ... is first base cursed?

And Matt Gorski might be looking at that list and thinking, “Umm. Never mind.”

But getting back to Aki Iwamura.  He is now the manager of the Fukushima Red Hopes in Japan's Baseball Challenge League. So, while his playing days ended in 2010, he survived his ordeal in Pittsburgh and has gone on to have a productive post-baseball coaching career.

Why was Iwamura allowed to stick around for another couple of weeks even after Walker’s promotion? The answer lies in the magical date in June when players can be called up from the minors without having it count against service time in MLB. In 2010, that magic date was in mid-June.  Had Iwamura been DFA’d earlier, the Pirates would have had to promote someone from Triple-A to take his place on the roster. And such a promotion, pre mid-June, would have started someone's MLB service time clock. The Pirates had intentions of calling up Brad Lincoln, Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata, but those promotions couldn’t happen until mid-June. While no one can confirm for sure, it's notable that on the day Walker was promoted, Pirates first baseman Steve Pearce sustained an on-field injury that  put him on the long-term disabled list. Iwamura would have probably been DFA’d had that injury not occurred, but Pearce’s injury staved off his release.

And in a story that perhaps defines Iwamura as much as it does Bob Nutting, Iwamura was DFA’d on June 16, 2010 to make room for Pedro Alvarez. When a player is DFA’d, every team has a chance of claiming him. Not surprisingly, nobody claimed Iwamura.  Because no one claimed him, Iwamura was cleared to go to Indianapolis. Nowadays, situations like this result in the team paying out the player’s contract and not subjecting them to the demotion to Triple-A. It’s usually built into the contract. The player is given the choice of reporting to Triple-A or taking the buyout. But in 2010, not so, said Bob Nutting. There was no payout of the contract. And Iwamura, in order to be paid his guaranteed salary, had to go to Triple-A, which he stoically did.

At Indianapolis, he batted .269. Not great, but certainly respectable. Iwamura could have mailed it in at that point. Gone to Triple-A, gone through the motions, and collected his $4 million. But he didn’t. He gave it his best. When the Triple-A season concluded, the Pirates released Iwamura. 

And once released, he was signed by the Oakland A’s to finish out the season playing third base, filling in for the A’s starting third baseman, Kevin Kouzmanoff, who was injured. Mind you, this is Billy Bean, the author of Moneyball, who signed Iwamura for the final three weeks of the 2010 season.  Iwamura batted .129 for the A’s, and that is how his playing career ended.

No one can be sure how the Tellez story will end. But however it does, one hopes that it ends with the same kind of dignity that Aki Iwamura showed in that 2010 season in the face of learning that he no longer had what  it takes to play in the major leagues.