Five Questions: Pittsburgh Pirates

It isn’t much of a coincidence that the Pirates finished the 2006 season with the same 67-95 record they had in 2005. Since taking the Pittsburgh general manager job in 2001, Dave Littlefield has specialized in risk aversion, resulting in team after team that wins around 70 games. That would be totally unacceptable for most franchises, but the Pirates ownership seems content with Littlefield as long as he can prevent the Pirates from having a truly disastrous season.

Thanks to Littlefield’s uncharacteristically smart moves this winter, though, the 2007 Bucs can probably look forward to a few more wins than the traditional 70—but not that many more, and even darker times may lie ahead for the Pirate faithful. Nonetheless, Bucs fans have to take good news where they can get it, so let’s begin with that.

1. What the hell happened this offseason?

Is it just me, or did Littlefield actually have a decent winter? He mostly avoided the free agent spending spree and didn’t trade any of his young starting pitchers, and in January he dealt for Adam LaRoche (and outfield prospect Jamie Romak). In 2006, Pirates first basemen hit just .276/.356/.426 and played awful defense; even if LaRoche’s sterling .285/.354/.561 season in 2006 turns out to be a career year, he’ll be an enormous upgrade.

In return, Littlefield gave up reliever Mike Gonzalez and shortstop prospect Brent Lillibridge. However good a pitcher Gonzalez is, he’s still a 50 inning reliever with injury issues. He was a luxury the Pirates couldn’t afford.

Lillibridge is a polished and well-rounded ballplayer who is likely to blossom into a productive major leaguer, but not a star. The LaRoche trade talks were rumored to be stalled for some time because the Bucs wouldn’t part with mediocre outfielder Chris Duffy instead of Lillibridge, which is bizarre. Forgetting that for a second, though, LaRoche is worth the two players for whom he was traded, and he should help the Pirates’ floundering offense tremendously for the next three seasons.

Then, in February, with Shawn “BP” Chacon penciled in as their fifth starter, the Bucs signed Tony Armas Jr. to a one-year, $3.5 million deal with a mutual option for 2008. Armas isn’t anyone’s idea of a great—or even good—pitcher, but he’s still better than the Bucs’ other options, which included Chacon, Shane Youman, Sean Burnett and Marty McLeary.

So, for those of you keeping score, that’s one deal that helps in both the short and long terms and another that helps in the short term and doesn’t hurt in the long term. For a franchise in an enormous hole, these moves are merely a couple feet of rope. But at least they didn’t keep digging.

2. So what?

Well, after 14 consecutive losing seasons, Pirates fans have to content themselves with any sign of progress. But you’ve got a point: The Pirates aren’t going to contend this year.

In the Pittsburgh press, much has been made of the fact that the Bucs managed to post a 37-35 record following the 2006 All-Star break, after posting a dismal 30-60 record before it. In fact, new Pirates manager and self-important blowhard Jim Tracy has absurdly taken credit for “changing the culture” of the team somewhere around the All-Star break, thus resulting in more wins.

Anyway, that .500 second half record is worth getting excited about, isn’t it? After all, the World Series Champion St. Louis Cardinals won the NL Central division with just 83 wins, so if the Pirates can keep playing the way they played in the second half, they can contend in 2007, right?

Well, no. Not only is the NL Central likely to get stronger in 2007 for regression-to-the-mean reasons alone, but the Pirates’ winning record in the second half of 2006 was a mirage. Before the All-Star break, the Pirates scored 411 runs and allowed 474; afterward, they scored 280 and allowed 323. The Pirates’ pitching and defense was significantly better in the second half, but their offense vanished. The Bucs’ record for the year was 67-95, and they basically played like a 67 win team before the All-Star break and after it. The difference between the two halves was that before the break, they were a ridiculous 9-27 in one-run games. After, they went 15-4.

The 2006 Pirates’ real problem was that their position players simply did not do their jobs, before the All-Star break or after. After Freddy Sanchez, who won the National League batting title while playing excellent defense at third, and steady superstar Jason Bay, it’s staggering how awful the Pirates’ position players were on both sides of the ball. The Bucs had the worst defensive efficiency of any team in baseball. Given that many Pirates pitchers, including starters Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, don’t strike out many batters, it’s remarkable that the pitching staff kept its head above water the whole year. Duke, Maholm and Ian Snell all finished the year with among the worst averages in baseball on balls in play. Meanwhile, the Pirates offense ranked 29th in the majors in runs scored, two runs ahead of Tampa Bay.

Other than catcher Ronny Paulino, who hit single after single in a fine rookie season, the Bucs’ up-the-middle starters all caused more than their share of the team’s problems. Second baseman Jose Castillo didn’t hit at all outside of the month of May, showed less range than Keanu Reeves, and all but ate himself out of a starting job by year’s end.

Twenty million dollar man Jack Wilson put on weight before the 2006 season in a failed effort to add power and, as a result, ended up losing a step on defense. And center fielder Chris Duffy had a miserable April, quit the team and went home in May, returned to the organization in June, and didn’t hit at all until he posted a fine .861 OPS in September. Overall, Duffy hit an awful .255/.317/.338 for the year (although he did run the bases and play defense well).

Those three players would’ve put any team at a serious disadvantage, but the Bucs also had to contend with the fact that they’d spent more than $15 million the previous winter on Jeromy Burnitz, Joe Randa and Sean Casey, whose lead bats and gloves helped sink the Pirates’ ship before the weather in Pittsburgh even got warm.

On the pitching side, the Bucs were decent, finishing 19th in the big leagues with 797 runs allowed, which doesn’t sound great until you consider how bad the team’s defense was. Its bullpen, led by Gonzalez and the indefatigable duo of Salomon Torres (first in the league with 94 appearances) and Matt Capps (who, worryingly, came within one game of tying Oscar Villarreal‘s NL record for appearances by a rookie), finished ninth in the big leagues with a 3.89 ERA.

The team’s starting pitching corps, headed by Duke, Maholm, and Snell (who finished 12th in all of baseball in strikeouts per nine innings) was also passable, even with Victor Santos or BP Chacon getting the ball every fifth day. Still, there wasn’t a pitching staff in baseball that could have turned the 2006 Pirates into a winner.

3. Is there any reason to hope that things will be better in 2007?

In a limited way, yes. Most obviously, Burnitz, Randa and Casey won’t be back, and the Pirates defense had improved somewhat by the end of the 2006 season, when Casey had been shipped to Detroit and Burnitz and Randa had been banished to the bench. With any luck, Sanchez will be the team’s starting second baseman in 2007, and Castillo will spend most of the year riding the pine. (Jose Bautista has a shot at replacing Sanchez at third; if he doesn’t win the job, Castillo will play there.) Jack Wilson still isn’t going to hit, but he trimmed down in the offseason and may be able to at least provide something like the superb defense he gave the Bucs in 2005. And LaRoche will be a huge help, both offensively and defensively.

The Pirates bullpen is likely to be worse in 2007 than in 2006 because the Pirates lost their best reliever in Gonzalez, lefty John Grabow has already been shelved with arm trouble and the 23 year-old Capps can’t possibly stand another year of the abuse his arm took in 2006. However, the Pirates do at least have a lot of depth in that area—23 players on their 40-man roster are pitchers, and an overwhelming number of those are likely to be relievers in the majors.

Tracy won’t have to rely on four relievers making 70 or more appearances, as he did in 2006. This year, he can plug Jonah Bayliss, Jesse Chavez, and Josh Sharpless into the bullpen, and chances are they’ll be fine.

Starting pitching depth, though, is a problem, and if Duke, Snell, Maholm or Tom Gorzelanny gets hurt, as pitchers their age often do, the Pirates will be a mess. The newest of the Pirates’ four youngsters, Gorzelanny, is having a very poor spring, and there has been speculation that there may be something wrong with him or Maholm, who was mysteriously scratched from a recent spring training start.

That all may be irrelevant, but the point is that the Pirate faithful needs to pray that this quartet remains healthy, because they probably aren’t going to like what happens if Chacon, Burnett, McLeary, or Youman winds up in the rotation. Chacon struggles to strike out a batter for every one he walks; Burnett is a former top prospect who has shown few signs that he’s fully recovered from injuries that shelved him for all of 2005 (despite not allowing a run this spring, he’s walked seven batters in 11.1 innings); and McLeary and Youman have spent most of their careers in the minors for a reason.

4. Wait—did you say that 23 members of the Pirates’ 40-man roster are pitchers, and that few of those are likely to be big-league starters?

Yes, and this is evidence of a big problem that the Pirates have to face going forward. Dave Littlefield has spent the last year or so sticking every low-upside pitcher he could find—Brian Rogers, Juan Perez, Romulo Sanchez, Josh Shortslef, Chacon, McLeary, Youman—on the 40-man, where they join perpetually injured former top prospects like Burnett, Bryan Bullington and John Van Benschoten. The only players on the 40-man roster who stand a fighting chance of being good big-league starters are the ones who are already in the rotation, and maybe Burnett and recently acquired Cuban import Yoslan Herrera, who we simply don’t know a whole lot about yet.

Things don’t get any less depressing when one looks at the position players on the 40-man. The only players on it who don’t already have big league jobs are Brad Eldred, Javier Guzman, Rajai Davis and Nyjer Morgan. Some folks still hold out hope that Eldred’s prodigious power and hacktastic approach will translate to big-league success, but I’m not convinced. After that, the other three are marginal players who most teams probably wouldn’t bother to protect.

Some of the chaff on the 40-man roster has to do with the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, which changed the rules about which players had to be protected. But mostly, the cause is that there’s very little in the farm system. There’s Andrew McCutchen, who’s one of the best prospects in baseball; Neil Walker, the Pirates’ 2004 top pick, whose prospect status has slipped in the past year because of injuries, a failure to develop secondary skills, and a recent move from catcher to third base; and 2006 top pick Brad Lincoln, who was recently shut down with elbow trouble. That’s it. After that, good luck finding a B-minus grade prospect anywhere in their system. That’s bad news for any team, but it’s especially bad for the low-payroll Pirates, who must depend heavily on youngsters to fill out their roster. The Pirates’ constant losing gives them prime draft picks year in and year out, too, which makes the sorry state of their farm system even more embarrassing than it might otherwise be.

5. What does all this have to do with 2007?

Let’s begin to answer that question with another question: Who will be the Bucs’ key players in 2010? Hopefully, two or three of the youngsters currently in the Bucs’ rotation will still be around and effective. Maybe they’ll be joined by Lincoln, but maybe not. McCutchen will hopefully be the center fielder, and perhaps Walker can improve his hitting enough to start at third base. Maybe Paulino, already an enormous and dialup-slow ballplayer, will still be able to move quickly enough to start at catcher.

After that, who knows? Bay, LaRoche, Sanchez, Castillo, Xavier Nady and Torres will all be eligible for free agency by then. Jack Wilson has a very expensive option year in 2010 that the Pirates will refuse, if they know what’s good for them. That’s almost all of the Pirates’ offense, plus its closer. And other than McCutchen, there’s little in the farm system to replace them. A lot can happen between now and 2009, but right now the prospects of the 2010-2011 Bucs look incredibly bleak – Pirates fans have already endured fourteen straight losing seasons, and Littlefield looks poised to start a whole new streak in 2010, if the current one doesn’t continue up to that point anyway.

So if the Pirates are going to snap their streak of losing seasons any time in the next six years or so, it’s probably going to be between now and the end of 2009, with the core of players already in place at the big league level. Because so many of those players are eligible for free agency after 2009, the Bucs need to figure out whether they’re good enough to turn the team into a contender. If not, they need to start aggressively trading them in an effort to bolster the farm system. After this year, the trade value of those players who might leave after 2009 will start to dwindle as they get closer to free agency. The Pirates only have Bay in the first place because they traded Brian Giles in Giles’ third season before free agency; 2007 is Bay’s third season before free agency. So the Bucs need to decide what their strategy for the next few years will be.

Regrettably, decisiveness has never been Littlefield’s strong suit. In this case, though, the likely outcome is that he’ll stick with the players he’s got no matter what happens, if only because trading them would constitute an admission of failure that would probably cost him his job.

For most of the past ten years or so, I’ve wanted the Bucs to play for the future; there has never been much talent at the big-league level for the past decade, and the farm system has provided the Pirates’ only hope of contention. So the Pirates’ over-reliance on Randall Simon-type stopgaps in place of youngsters has rarely made sense and has often been actively counterproductive from a baseball standpoint.

However, I’m reaching the point where I don’t think the Pirates should play for the future anymore, simply because there isn’t any future to play for. Littlefield and his terrible scouting and drafting records have taken care of that. So the Future is Now in Pittsburgh, even though Now is really lame. It’s time for the Bucs to push their chips in and try to contend with the core of players that helped them win a mere 67 games last year. That seems like an absurd position to take, but rooting for a team that’s as poorly run as the Pirates is pretty absurd in itself, when you think about it.

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