Five Questions: Pittsburgh Pirates

It usually goes something like….

“You’re a Pirates fan? How the heck did you become a Pirates fan while living in Indiana?”

Ah, the joys of coming of baseball age in the late 1970s with a father from the same hometown as Jimmy and Tommy Dorsey (less than five miles from the hometown of Danny Litwhiler), but who considered the Pirates (who won a World Series while he was in college) more his team than the closer-to-home Phillies (who finished in last place nearly every year he was in college).

There I was, dragged out of bed…repeatedly…during October of 1979 in order to watch both the LCS and the World Series because Pops was coming to the plate, or Tek was coming in to finish off the game. Thus, the first year that I truly grasped the what of baseball (beyond simply watching it and enjoying knowing the player names from my baseball cards), I was indoctrinated by and became spiritually aligned with The Family.

I then spent all of 1980 opening pack after pack of Topps cards hoping to find a Willie Stargell, but instead collecting Phil Niekro after Phil Niekro and a couple handfuls of an outfielder with the A’s named ““Rickey” (as opposed to my perceived-to-be-normal “Ricky”) Henderson. At least the Henderson cards were good for flipping against the wall to win other kids’s cards…. When I finally got a pack-originated Pops card in late 1981, I remember being euphoric for at least half an hour. I think my mom hid the iced tea for a week after that, suspecting that consuming 96 (or was it 128?) ounces in one afternoon wasn’t a good thing for a ten-year-old.

And then…well, then Chuckles, cocaine, and regression-to-the-mean did their damage. Ott, Moreno and Foli returned to reality. Stargell got old. Parker (and we still don’t really know who else) got high. Blyleven got the heck out of Dodge. It was death, decay and the Jason Thompson years.

Briefly, life was good again. You might have heard that Bobby’s kid turned out to be kinda good, but the Braves ripped our hearts outtwice. (Editor’s Note — and let’s not forget 1990 either.)

Then, Barry left to play where his heroes had played, and 80 wins has not been seen since.

I got to stop by Three Rivers and join with the other 64 or so attendees in booing Barry during a mid-90s homestand. Barry made the last out. I think that was the last thing related to the Pirates which I have been able to cheer. It’s been pretty bad….

1. What could 2004 have been?

At the beginning of 2004, the Pirates had an opportunity to accept that 75 wins was the extreme upper end of their potential and, instead, attempt to develop the core of the next winning Pirates team. While it might not have been pretty (particularly defensively), Pittsburgh had the ability to target, by the end of season, a starting lineup and rotation of

C Jason Kendall
1B Craig Wilson
2B Jose Castillo
3B Freddy Sanchez/Bobby Hill
SS Jack Wilson
LF Jason Bay
CF Tony Alvarez
RF J.J. Davis

SP Kip Wells
SP Oliver Perez
SP Josh Fogg
SP Kris Benson
SP Sean BurnettRyan Vogelsong

In addition, the bench could have included Chris Shelton (he of the .300/.400/.500 at each level he’d played through 2003), providing the opportunity to move Kendall, shift Wilson behind the plate (I said it wasn’t necessarily pretty) and play eight guys making notably less than $2M/year, many near the league minimum, while still finishing ahead of Arizona in the “worst” team category. Frankly, it is hard to believe that the above lineup would have finished significantly below the 4.22 R/G that the 2004 team generated, so continuing to beat out Seligula’s former team would not have been unthinkable.

In the end, the team above might well have lost 100 games, but it could have offered a glimmer of hope and a likely-profitable season. That combination is hard to beat if you have been a Pirate fan for the past quarter century.

Given that Craig Wilson, Jason Bay and Oliver Perez look likely to be at least “good,” and that Shelton is likely the future 1B of Detroit after the Carlos Pena Experiment ends, 2004 could have been a tremendous success story. It is not every year your farm system (and trades) can permit you to toss that many young guys on the field and reasonably expect that four of them will prove capable of pushing your team toward winning seasons.

2. What did 2004 become?

The year started out poorly as Littlefield chose to leave a large number of young players with track records of minor league success exposed to the Rule 5 draft, resulting in the loss of five players. His post-draft rationalization was that most of the players would get returned to the team. Of course, “most” is not “all” and, as noted above, Shelton will likely soon be testing the death valley of Comerica Park on a regular basis.

Having frittered away the organizational depth in the field, several “proven veterans” were brought in to fill perceived gaps and to make the club more “competitive” for the season—Jose Mesa, Raul Mondesi, Daryle Ward and the great Randall Simon, among them. Mesa had a serviceable year. Ward wasn’t bad given his cheap price. Simon, Mondesi, well…next!

At least the rotation was left about as envisioned. It proved to be a solid rotation that, if backed by a plus offense, could probably have looked a lot like those cobbled together by LaRussa and Duncan in Oakland in the late 1980s.

Also on the plus side, one albatross contract, Kris Benson, was finally unloaded to the Mets…but, sadly, Littlefield got less for him (Ty Wigginton?!) than I did for a 1975 Pat Bourque and one of my ten (or was it eleven?) 1980 Phil Niekro cards—a 1979 Bill Virdon. I’m guessing the freak first-half that Jack Wilson put up convinced Littlefield not to push/hold out for Reyes or any other competent infield prospects or near-prospects the Mets might have had rattling around their system. Matt Peterson offers potential, but he’s certainly not a sure thing.

Oh yes, the aforementioned “youth movement” scenario? Well, Rob Mackowiak and Ty Wigginton combined for almost 750 plate appearances. Not a good sign. Some players were given ample opportunity to demonstrate their abilities. Jose Castillo parlayed 406 plate appearances into a .298 OBP and 666 OPS. Ryan Vogelsong put up 133 innings of 6.50 ERA ball. Other players were given “ample” opportunity to demonstrate their abilities. Bobby Hill and Freddy Sanchez, each injured for part of the season, were quickly shown the deep, dark reaches of the bench, racking up fewer than 275 plate appearances between them. Davis was given 39 plate appearances to prove himself in the major leagues. Alvarez got 42 plate appearances, and was later dropped from the 40-man roster.

The end result? A 12th consecutive season largely wasted on the field and almost entirely wasted in the front office.

3. What’s happened since last season?

In the context of the last decade, this past off-season, mildly active, but not in a spastic “must make transactions” sort of way, could be considered “good,” but that is truly damning with faint praise.

The “Not bad”
The second albatross contract, Jason Kendall, is now gone. Frankly, I never thought it would happen. Billy Beane was, all along, probably the most likely candidate to pick up Jason, but it was still somewhat of a surprise that he sent something other than Ricky Rincon to Pittsburgh in the exchange. No, the received package wasn’t so hot, but getting anything for Kendall was probably a tough task. Mark Redman may not be a great addition, but the probability that he is almost as good as the overpriced Kris Benson is high enough that I consider it a positive. If Littlefield is paying attention, expect Redman to be flipped for something mid-season…just don’t expect that something to be useful.

The other major component of the Kendall trade, Arthur Rhodes, was subsequently turned into Matt Lawton. At least Lawton is highly likely to be league average and should put up an OBP that makes it worthwhile putting him toward the top of the lineup.

The “It could have been worse”
Jack Wilson’s black magic blinded the Pirates to his true level of ability and he was signed to a $4M/year, two-year contract. It is true that this will limit future arbitration damage should his sudden ability to hit for a .353 BABIP be sustained. But if his BABIP returns to .300…well, at least he isn’t being paid $8M per year.

The “I guess it could have been worse…if Kenny Williams were our GM”
The animated (and unholy?) corpse that is Benito Santiago is now the starting C. I can’t believe that a minor league catcher with some potential (e.g., Craig Ansman) couldn’t have been obtained early in the off-season for a few pretty baubles (like Tony Alvarez).

Also, Ty Wigginton and Rob Mackowiak have been handed the 3B job in some form of a time-share agreement. It doesn’t really matter which plays, as they are frighteningly similar (and bad): Wigginton has almost 1300 PA with a .324 OBP and .424 SLG; Mackowiak has almost 1400 PA with a .325 OBP and .423 SLG. Meanwhile, the one-year-younger pair of Bobby Hill and Freddy Sanchez have combined for fewer than 550 PA with performance that, while not markedly better, offers hope (Hill has a .340+ OBP in his ~470 PA). Just because a manager has liked you in the past doesn’t make you more qualified for the job…unless, of course, the current manager (McClendon) is the manager who liked you (Mackowiak).

4. Does the opportunity remain to reclaim the youth potential of 2004?

In the field, it appears the opportunity to do a wholesale youth movement has passed. Thanks to the fascination with Mackowiak and Wigginton, Hill and Sanchez appear to have fallen completely out of the primary plans for the team. Alvarez had his former prospect sheen fade very quickly, now being in the ChiSox minor league system. Davis is with the Montr…er…Washington Vagabonds-to-be, and may finally get a chance to prove whether he can make it in the majors. Perennial prospect J.R. House had so many injuries that he was finally released. At this point in time, the best options in the minors are Nate McLouth and Rajai Davis, but both are at least a year away from being realistic as options to insert into the lineup. In Rajai Davis’s case, he has to hope that Littlefield notices he’s been good and actually promotes to him an age-appropriate league.

On the mound, one may still hold on to hope. Oliver Perez has proven to be a potential star, already having one outstanding season under his belt before the age of 23 (Note to self: make sacrifice to injury god on behalf of Perez). Wells is only 28 and a solid innings muncher with past above-average performance that would seem within reach in the future. Fogg, also 28, can probably continue to put up approximately .500 records for a few more years provided the defense doesn’t slip much. The bottom end of the rotation was to be filled by Burnett (22), Dave Williams (26; also a perennial prospect), and John Van Benschoten (25), with Bobby Bradley (24), Ian Snell (23) and Zach Duke (22) as the deep backups. Van Benschoten’s injury has probably pushed the Bradley and Snell time-tables up a bit, but, in the latter case, that is likely to be a plus.

5. What is there to look forward to in 2005?

I’m somewhat torn between the flippant “Firing of Lloyd McClendon,” and “Wigginton, Mackowiak, Santiago and Mesa play themselves out of Pittsburgh for 2006,” and a more-serious “The hope that no more young pitchers get injured.” The first and third are most desirable, with the first likely leading to the second. All three taking place would permit a 50-110 season to still be considered a positive year. None (beyond the 50-110 season) are particularly likely, I’m afraid.

Realistically, I will be looking forward to 2006 and beyond. The staff is good enough for this year’s team to be unlikely to plumb the depths of Detroit in 2003 or Arizona in 2004, but 70-75 wins still looks like the top-end of the potential scale. In the future, Van Benschoten, Snell and Duke could provide a solid two through four behind Perez, with Burnett, Bradley or Bullington having potential to sneak into the rotation, as well. Ideally, Snell, Burnett or Bradley can make Redman expendable early in the coming season, permitting Littlefield to move Mark before his value goes down with the approaching trade deadline—we just don’t need another Benson fiasco, with the primary haul being INFs Bo Hart and Rick Ankiel.

Thus, for 2005, I will content myself with frequent trips to Victory Field to watch the Indians play. Snell’s stay in Nap-Town should be brief, and Bradley’s could be, if he regains his control. I’d expect to see Bullington and Duke spend much, if not most, of the season there, pending their K rates. And, well, the park is gorgeous, my two-year-old twins love baseball, and I can finally see my Bucs (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) on a regular basis.

Aw, heck, it isn’t so bad after all.

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