Friday, October 27, 2006

Looking Ahead: Pitt. Pirates

2006 W-L Record: 67-95
2006 pW-pL Record: 71-91
Runs Scored: 691 (16th in NL -- last)
Runs Allowed: 797 (9th in NL)
Free Agents: Joe Randa, Victor Santos
Pending Options: Jeromy Burnitz

2007 Projected Lineup:
1B -- Xavier Nady
2B -- Jose Castillo
SS -- Jack Wilson
3B -- Freddy Sanchez
LF -- Jason Bay
CF -- Chris Duffy/Jose Bautista
RF -- Jeromy Burnitz*/Nate McLouth
C -- Ronny Paulino

2007 Proj. Rotation:
Zach Duke
Ian Snell
Paul Maholm
Tom Gorzellany
Shawn Chacon?

2007 Proj. Closer: Mike Gonzalez

The Good News:
This is always a short section in Pittsburgh. But truly, the Pirates have some impressive young pitchers arriving in the majors. Duke, Snell, and Maholm all have some potential either as quality hurlers or at least reliable arms. That's quite an accomplishment for the Pirates, who have been terrible at developing pitchers for years now; in fact, you could argue that the Pirates are among the worst franchises ever at developing them. Vern Law and Wilbur Cooper were fine pitchers, don't get me wrong; but if you've been around for over 100 years and those two are the best you've come up with, then that's a problem.
The Pirates fell victim to the need for an "established closer" from 2004-5 and were lucky they got nothing worse than moderate production from Jose Mesa. This past year, the Pirates finally just gave the job to a talented young hurler out of the bullpen and saw strong results. Mike Gonzalez came over from Boston along with Freddy Sanchez in what now looks like a pretty lopsided trade from Boston. True, the Red Soxs weren't giving up any Hall-of-Famers, but all they got in return was a poor half-season of Jeff Suppan. After toiling in relative obscurity, the Pirates finally decided to take the conservative route and make a closer out of someone in the organization. Gonzalez repaid them by posting a 2.17 ERA with 64 K in 54 IP. That's not out of line with his true level of talent, either; in three full seasons of relief, Gonzalez has managed a 2.37 career ERA, with 183 K in 155.2 IP. Hopefully, the Gonzalez experiment will encourage more teams to make closers out of strikeout pitchers already in their bullpen.
As far as the lineup goes, there's not much of note here, but there are some promising factors. Jason Bay stands head and shoulders ahead of anyone, but then he's one of the best players in the National League, so it's indeed surprising to see him in Pittsburgh at all. Bay won Rookie of the Year in 2004 (the first Pirate ever to do so) and has compiled a 292/390/546 lifetime batting line. He's a slugger, but he also has well-rounded hitting abilities, although he is prone to strikeouts. But in any event, the Pirates are truly lucky to have him. Let's see if they can turn his prime years into anything useful for the team.
Third baseman Freddy Sanchez won the batting title in an unlikely breakout campaign this past season. His final hitting line of 344/378/473 belies anything he's done since the minor leagues. But even if he does fall back below .300 (as is likely), he'll still be a useful third baseman, and that's worth something.
After #1 catching prospect Ryan Doumit failed to impress (208/322/389), the Pirates turned to their #2, Ronny Paulino, and were paid off in aces (310/360/394). Paulino has a fine defensive reputation and his hitting skills are for real. He may not make any All-Star teams, but there's a lot worse things to have than a solid defensive backstop with some offense to boot.
The Pirates, disappointing though they always are, do have some promising pieces in place. This is a team with low expectations, but it's not unreasonable to expect this team to finish over .500 in the next few years, something they haven't done since winning the NL East in 1992.

The Bad News:
This is a pretty poor team, and the prospects for improvement are, realistically, not that great. While the Pirates do have the pieces in place to form a competitive team, there's no reason to think that this organization, one of the poorest in baseball, will be able to translate that into long-term success.
The Pirates have had some promising young pitchers since 1992, but have almost never been able to translate that into success. The Pirates at one point had the semi-promising troika of Jason Schmidt, Esteban Loaiza, and Francisco Cordova. While that might seem like the basis upon which to build at least a .500 ballclub, the Pirates failed miserably. Although the front office personnel is different, their level of competence is unfortunately pretty much the same.
It's for this reason that I refuse to get too excited about the Pirates' young pitchers. It's not that I don't see their talent; it's just that I don't expect that talent to be developed and exploited to any great degree. 2006 was a disturbing prelude in this regard; Zach Duke led the team in ERA with a 4.47 mark. Snell finished at 4.74 and Maholm at 4.76. This was not out of line with their peripherals, as only Snell managed a respectable strikeout rate (74:169 in 186 IP). This could just be the sign of the growing pains experienced by any prospects, and to some extent I'm sure it is. But I also think it's a sign that we should never be optimistic about the future in Kevin McGlinchy's Pittsburgh.
As far as the lineup goes, the Pirates finished dead last in the NL in runs scored, and there's nothing to suggest that it's a fluke or a passing phase. You could argue that they were somewhat better than the Cubs, due to ballparks and all, but that's a dubious distinction if ever there was one. The Pirates have a decent base of talent in Bay, Paulino, and Sanchez, as well as defensive whiz Jack Wilson, but that's about it. A small trickle of prospects makes the offense look better in 2007, but it will probably still be a below-average batting order by any measure.

Offseason Game Plan:
Don't do what you do in every other offseason: don't sign low-level free agents that do nothing to help your long-term plans. The Pirates, like the Royals, do this every year. I'm convinced that they do this not just out of incompetence (although that could always play a part), but because they're more interested in creating a small buzz and selling some season tickets than actually putting together a winning ballclub.
I think that, in a fan's eyes, the worst thing a GM can do in the offseason is nothing at all. In the eyes of fans, reporters, and players, a GM has to make some "moves" to prove the franchise's commitment to winning. Inaction means incompetence. They say that you should go out and sign some people, even if they're low-level, to help push the team into contention.
I think that this is ludicrous; it's a ludicrous thing for fans and reporters to ask for, and it's ludicrous that the Pirates kowtow to it instead of building up a long-term winner. In the 2006 preseason, the Pirates traded for Sean Casey and signed Joe Randa and Jeromy Burnitz to free agent deals. I'm sure that every columnist in Pittsburgh wrote that this showed the Pirates' "commitment to winning," that they were willing to spend money to improve the team.
I'm sorry, but no team that goes out and gets Casey, Randa, and Burnitz is committed to "winning," and it's ludicrous to suggest that these players are much help at all in that regard. You'd be better off spending your money on a flashy center-field fountain than on Sean Casey. But if the only standard is that a GM must do "something," we can't really blame guys like Kevin McGlinchy for making useless, expensive free agent moves just to keep their jobs and protect the slow trickle of season ticket sales.
We fans and reporters are as much to blame as anyone for this. I challenge a reporter to come forward in Pittsburgh and say that the Pirates must do nothing in the offseason free agent market. That doesn't mean that they can't explore a valuable trade or look for some underrated help to sign to low-end deals, but the Pirates have to stay away from any sort of major money commitment. If the reporters will take a stand on this, that will be a big help. The next thing is that the fans must hold the team to a more reasonable commitment: do what's best for the team, never just make a move for its own sake. If you make a lot of moves that only end up hurting the team, we're not going to call in to the "Jimmy Whine Whine" local sports talk show and say that the team has a "commitment to winning" or that "hey, at least they did something." We want what's best for the team. And besides, saying that the Pirates are "committed to winning" is like saying that Josef Stalin was committed to human rights.
Stay the course with your young talent and resist the urge to sign the next Reggie Sanders, or Jeromy Burnitz, or Benito Santiago, or Randall Simon or . . . you get the idea. Some low-budget teams can get by with making small free-agent deals, but you've shown such sheer incompetence at choosing which players to take a chance on that it's better you do nothing at all. Always explore trades, and never settle on someone for the sake of continuing mediocrity. Of course, while I'm getting the Pirates to stop settling for mediocrity, I might as well get the Palestinians to stop settling in the West Bank.
This is a hopeless franchise; not because there are no talented players, but because there is no clue in this organization how to win baseball games. Until they get one, the relative talent of their young players is pretty much irrelevant.

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