Five Questions: Pittsburgh Pirates

I like the Pirates as a historical franchise. I like Honus Wagner a lot. I like Arky Vaughan. I like Roberto Clemente and Willie Stargell and Bob Friend and Manny Sanguillen and Elroy Face and the Waner brothers and Babe Adams. I’m told the new stadium is the best of the recent ballparks. So please, please don’t think I have some sort of bias against Pittsburgh.

That said, I tried SO hard to dump this preview on somebody else.

The problem with the Pirates is that they’re so boring. Let’s try to measure this, somehow… Okay, as I see it, there are eight teams who don’t have a realistic shot at the playoffs: “Montreal,” Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Colorado, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Texas, and of course Pittsburgh. Actually, you could make an argument for some of those teams, but I’m thinking “realistic shot.”

Well, Texas and Tampa Bay have exciting young players, so they’re definitely worth watching. Cincinnati’s got the Griffey Jr. Saga, along with some other guys with high upsides. Colorado has Todd Helton and Home Runs, while Detroit’s got Pudge Rodriguez and the Quest To Stay In Double Digits In The Loss Column. The Expos have Vidro and Crazy Carl Everett and the Tale of Two Cities. Even the lowly Brewers have a storyline, with a slew of youngsters shooting through the system (Rickie Weeks, Prince Fielder, et al) and the ever-dramatic Selig Situation.

What about the Pirates? They’ve got… Jason Bay. Jason Bay is the most exciting thing about the Pittsburgh Pirates right now. He’s got a shot at the Rookie of the Year award. Meanwhile, the rest of the Pirates just aren’t worth tuning in for. They don’t even have any competition for the title of Most Boring Team.

I’m really, really sorry if that offends anyone, but it’s just so true. Does the team have any direction? Any future? The farm system’s got a few decent-looking prospects, but nobody looks like a savior.

1) Does GM Dave Littlefield have a plan?

Sure doesn’t seem like it. In an MLB.com chat on February 28, Littlefield said, “In general, we’re looking to put a competitive club out on the field. I’m like everyone here in attendance. I want to win more games.” Well, that’s a heck of a nice goal, but his actions don’t really support it. In 2001, Littlefield traded his ace, Jason Schmidt, to the Giants, and has since watched Schmidt emerge as one of the best pitchers in baseball. He shipped the team’s only star, Brian Giles, to the Padres last season.

Those moves might make sense if Littlefield was in rebuilding mode, but he seems to think the Pirates are contenders right now. He keeps going out and signing the sorts of players a contending team signs to help in a push for the pennant — veterans like Kenny Lofton, Reggie Sanders, Raul Mondesi, and Randall Simon. Problem is, the Pirates aren’t a Mondesi away from competing; they’re a Bonds plus a Prior away from competing. The sooner Littlefield admits this to himself and starts behaving like the GM of a rebuilding team, the sooner the Pirates can begin the long road back to respectability.

It’s okay to rebuild, and it’s okay to contend. It’s okay (actually, it’s best) to do both at the same time, like Oakland. It’s not okay to merely run in place, as Littlefield is doing. He needs to realize where the franchise is and where he wants it to be. Then, he needs to figure out how to get from here to there. Until then, the Pirates will continue to be the heirs to the ’70s Indians, the Most Boring Team in baseball.

2) Will Kris Benson ever be a star?

Kris Benson is a little like pitching’s version of J.D. Drew. Both were celebrated college players, and both were picked near the top of the amateur draft (in Benson’s case #1 overall). Both have ability and have had some major-league success, but both have seen their effectiveness minimized by injuries.

After two solid seasons to start his career, Benson looked like an emerging ace. Disaster struck in the spring of 2001, when he needed elbow surgery and missed the whole season. Since coming off the DL in May 2002, Benson has seen his once-solid strikeout rate plummet to below the league average. He’s also had trouble avoiding injuries; last year, he didn’t throw a pitch after July 17 thanks to shoulder trouble.

Things aren’t looking good for Kris Benson. Take a look at his pre-surgery and post-surgery stats:

                  IP       ERA      SO/9
1999-2000      414.1      3.95      7.02
2002-2003      235.1      4.82      5.62

Benson has a name, which should keep him in the league into his mid-thirties (he’s 29 now). Performance-wise, he’s no better than any number of injury-riddled mediocrities, but there’s always a GM or three willing to take a flier on an ex-phenom like Benson. Make no mistake, though — Kris Benson will never be a star, and I’ll be surprised if he even reaches the 200-inning plateau in a season again.

3) Does Craig Wilson deserve a regular job?

It’s become traditional that any Pirates preview article include a rant about how Craig Wilson deserves a shot but keeps getting overlooked. But is it true? Should Craig Wilson really be the starting right fielder in Pittsburgh? Brian O’Neill, a writer for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, recently penned a piece discussing this very question. Most of O’Neill’s analysis is just fine, but he does let some selective numbers fool him: “It’s great that Wilson hit left-handers harder than Gary Sheffield hits them, but against right-handers, Wilson does a passable impression of Kevin Young.”

The figures O’Neill is looking at are Craig Wilson’s stats against righties in 2003 — a dismal .238/.320/.416 line. Of course, that came in a sample of just 202 at-bats, hardly enough to draw any conclusions. Let’s take a look at the career splits for Wilson and Raul Mondesi, who’s got the Pirates’ right-field job this year:

           vs. RHP
Wilson    .249/.340/.450, .266 GPA
Mondesi   .277/.329/.493, .271 GPA

No real difference, and Wilson’s numbers aren’t bad at all. Of course, against lefties, it’s no contest:

           vs. LHP
Wilson    .322/.414/.595, .335 GPA
Mondesi   .271/.346/.484, .277 GPA

Frankly, I don’t think Craig Wilson needs a platoon partner, much less a job as a benchwarmer. He’s six years younger than Mondesi (27 vs. 33), he’s a better hitter, and he’s cheaper. I know Mondesi came reasonably cheap himself ($1.75M), but with Wilson on the roster, he’s completely superfluous.

4) Who is Jason Bay’s Rookie of the Year competition?

The NL’s biggest-name rookie, of course, is Japanese star Kazuo Matsui of the Mets. In the past I’d peg Matsui as my preseason Rookie of the Year, but after watching Hideki Matsui fail to take home the trophy last year, I’m not so sure. We’ll discuss Kaz Matsui further in the Mets preview, but suffice it to say he’s not a better candidate than any of the other top rookies.

A handful of other first-year players will have everyday jobs in the NL in 2004. Khalil Greene is slated to play shortstop for the Padres, and while he’s got a good glove, he won’t hit enough to get the necessary votes. The Braves’ new first baseman is Adam LaRoche; ESPN.com’s Alan Schwarz compares LaRoche to Wally Joyner and John Olerud. If LaRoche gets 500 at-bats and hits like he did in the minors, he’ll have a good shot at the hardware.

Another rookie regular is Aaron Miles, the Rockies’ second baseman. At 27, Miles is old for a rookie, but with the help of Coors Field, he could put up some nice numbers. Miles has topped .300 each of his last two minor-league seasons, and he’s got some pop in his bat. He is a good sleeper pick, a guy who has a could easily hit .300 with 15 homers.

The hottest pitching prospect in the league is 20-year-old Edwin Jackson of the Dodgers, who had a fantastic major-league debut last September (2-1, 2.45 ERA). As of this writing, Jackson has a spot in the starting rotation for L.A. this season. Minor league expert John Sickels rates Jackson an “A” prospect in his latest book — the highest possible grade.

Jackson wasn’t the only young pitcher to make a splash late last season, though — the Reds’ Ryan Wagner was dominant in his first taste of major-league action, going 2-0 with 1.66 ERA and 25 strikeouts in 21.2 innings. Wagner, a reliever, will be used in a setup role for now, which will limit his save opportunities and thus his standing in the eyes of the voters. The sleeper pitching candidate for the NL Rookie of the Year award is San Diego’s Akinori Otsuka, a reliever from Japan. Like Wagner, Otsuka will be used as a setup man this year.

Jason Bay has a real shot at the award, if he can stay healthy. His MLE performance at AA and AAA the past two years has been .281/.374/.486, and if he can do that over a full season this year, he’ll win the award. In 87 major league at-bats last season, Bay hit .287/.421/.529, so he’s already proven he can hit major league pitching. Like I said earlier, Jason Bay is the most exciting thing about the 2004 Pirates.

5) Will Oliver Perez ever break out?

I think he will. Think about this… Oliver Perez is a 22-year-old left-handed pitcher with a strikeout rate of 9.8 in his major league career. He’s got a nasty slider and a good 93-mph fastball, and just two years ago he debuted with a 3.50 ERA in 15 starts.

Of course, Perez isn’t a star yet. Like fellow ex-Padre Matt Clement before him, Perez has struggled mightily with command, walking more than five batters per game. He’s also given up way too many homers (35 in 216 career innings). Obviously both of those things need to change for Perez to be a successful pitcher, but I think he will ultimately be at least as good as Clement has become — that is, an above-average starter. Perez’s STATS profile on ESPN.com agrees: “[He] has the chance to be a consistent 15-game winner with his stuff, but he first must learn to throw strikes.” Perez doesn’t need the control of Greg Maddux, but he needs to get that walk rate to, at worst, the neighborhood of 4.00.

Highest strikeout rate from ages 20-21, minimum 200 innings:

Pitchers            SO/9
Oliver Perez        9.76
Billy McCool        9.60
Sam McDowell        9.08
Vida Blue           8.62
Dave Boswell        8.44
Jose Rijo           8.43
Don Sutton          8.34
Edwin Correa        8.26
Dennis Eckersley    8.21
Dwight Gooden       8.00

Quite the mixed bag, huh? It is notable that six of the nine pitchers below Perez had a 20-win season, and two are in the Hall of Fame. On the other hand, Correa and McCool burned out pretty quick, and 20-game winner Boswell was out of baseball by 26.

In Closing…

How does one close a preview of the most boring team in baseball? The Pirates have no chance at the playoffs, and only a very outside shot at a .500 record. They won’t finish last — they’ve got the Brewers to thank for that — but they’re also on the treadmill of mediocrity, and once Milwaukee’s youngsters arrive, the Bucs will take their rightful place in the cellar.

The team needs a full-on makeover, an entirely new organizational philosophy. Can the current management do that? Doubtful. What hope is there for a long-suffering Pirate fan? Well, as long as Pittsburgh keeps stinking up the Central, they’ll be near the top of the draft, and you can always hope some new blood will revitalize the organization. Maybe Jason Bay will succeed, inspiring the club to trade Mondesi and give Craig Wilson and J.J. Davis opportunities. Maybe Oliver Perez emerges as a 15-game winner, and Kip Wells kicks it up a notch. Jason Kendall could hit .350 in the first couple months, making him a more attractive trade commodity and netting Pittsburgh some prospects.

Shoot, maybe owner Kevin McClatchy watches Paul DePodesta for a couple years in L.A., realizes that there’s a trend of intelligent teams winning, and decides to get himself one of these young “nerds” to save his ballclub. Even in Pittsburgh, there’s upside if you look hard enough.

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