Five Questions: Pittsburgh Pirates

If I’d been writing Pirates previews throughout disgraced former general manager Dave Littlefield’s entire tenure, I’m sure I would have started just submitting the same preview every year. It would’ve been easier that way. After losing 100 games in 2001, Littlefield’s Pirates were heartbreakingly consistent, winning 72, 75, 72, 67, 67 and 68 games from 2002 to 2007.

The 2008 team, now run by new president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington, may well tack another 67 onto the end of that line. But there are now real reasons to hope that the pattern may be broken someday, if only at some point far into the future. With that in mind, a lot of the most important things that will happen to the 2008 Pirates will take place behind the scenes.

1. What happened this offseason?

Without a real chance at contending, the Bucs stood pat, neither spending much money nor dealing high-profile vets in an effort to rebuild. That may sound odd, but there’s more precedent for it than you might think. For example, Andrew Friedman’s first offseason as general manager for the then-moribund Rays franchise only featured one high-profile move, a trade in which the Rays received Edwin Jackson and Chuck Tiffany from the Dodgers in return for Danys Baez and Lance Carter. Doug Melvin didn’t make any big moves in his first offseason as general manager of the Brewers (although he did grab Brady Clark, Scott Podsednik and Dan Kolb as free-talent acquisitions). Despite the lack of big moves, though, Friedman and Melvin quickly improved the health of their franchises, and both teams are good bets to have winning seasons in 2008.

So the relative lack of player movement in the Pirates’ offseason shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the new management doesn’t think there’s a problem. Instead, it seems likely that Huntington and company were more focused on fixing the Pirates’ issues with coaching, scouting, development…well, just about everything, really.

The Bucs dumped the awful Jim Tracy and replaced him with new manager John Russell. They grabbed Kyle Stark from Cleveland to serve as their new director of player development and Greg Smith from Detroit to be their scouting director. They’ve also worked to make their player development program sleeker and more uniform, and they’ve announced plans to build a new $5 million Dominican facility to improve a dreadful Latin American program that hasn’t produced a good player since Aramis Ramirez. Given that the Pirates pick in the first half of the first round every year, their minor league system—which Baseball America recently ranked the fifth-worst of any organization—has been a complete embarrassment. It will be a while before we see what impact Coonelly and Huntington’s changes will have, but in any case, one can hardly blame them for making coaching, scouting and development their top priorities this winter.

This is not to say that Huntington and company were inactive. The Bucs shopped Jason Bay, hoping to land a couple of top prospects in exchange for their best hitter. Other teams were understandably unwilling to part with good young players in exchange for a guy coming off a career-worst season, though, so Bay stayed put. Huntington probably figured he would be better off hoping Bay caught fire in the first half of the season, then moving him.

So the only major league free agents the Bucs signed this offseason were Byung-Hyun Kim and Chris Gomez, both for around a million bucks apiece. They also signed a bunch of minor league free agents; of those, Doug Mientkiewicz, Josh Wilson and Jaret Wright probably have the best chances of making the team. Huntington also grabbed a number of relatively young pitchers, such as Phil Dumatrait, Jimmy Barthmaier, Ty Taubenheim and T.J. Beam, to provide depth.

2. What’s the Pirates offense like?

Well, this is roughly the same group of hitters the Pirates had in 2007, and we all saw how that turned out. The 2007 Bucs ranked 23rd in baseball in runs scored. Bay had a disastrous season and Adam LaRoche regressed severely after his superb 2006 campaign with Atlanta. The Pirates also got unexpectedly good seasons from Jack Wilson and Nate McLouth, though, so there’s no reason to expect the offense to improve much overall in 2008 unless changes are made.

The Pirates are considering replacing Ronny Paulino at catcher with Ryan Doumit, and doing so could help a whole lot. Paulino was bad with the bat last year and even worse with the glove. Speaking subjectively, I can’t remember an uglier defensive season than the one Paulino had in 2007. Any ball in the dirt would find a way by him. Balls thrown from the outfield could seemingly wind up anywhere but Paulino’s glove. And Paulino often didn’t even take chances trying to nail runners at second—he’d routinely allow them to steal without a throw. It’s hard to overstate how bad he looked, but let me try: Paulino starting at catcher at PNC Park could make PNC start to seem ugly.

Tracy still loved Paulino, though, because Paulino calls his own games, and Tracy refused to call pitches from the dugout the way many managers do. Now Tracy’s gone, and it’s not at all clear that the new management doesn’t prefer Doumit, who can’t possibly be any worse on defense and is a much better hitter. The knock on Doumit is that he can’t stay healthy, so maybe a platoon would help him keep fresh—about the only thing Paulino did well last year was hit lefties, posting a 1.055 OPS against them.

Another positional battle is taking place in center field, where McLouth and Nyjer Morgan are fighting it out. One wonders when the Pirates will learn that fast, slap hitters who don’t walk much almost never make good starting outfielders anymore. Morgan is just the latest in a long line of speedy, banjo-hitting Pirate centerfielders, including Adrian Brown, Tike Redman and Chris Duffy. As for McLouth, after spending a couple years stuck behind Duffy despite being younger and having a more impressive minor league profile, it would be reasonable if he wondered what, exactly, he had to do to win a job over these guys.

The entire case for Morgan seems to rest on a series of spectacular-looking defensive plays he made in a brief tryout in September and on the idea that, because he was a youth hockey player who didn’t play much baseball until relatively late in life, his minor league stats don’t mean anything. But the former argument confuses exciting baseball with good baseball—Morgan isn’t a great defensive player, and some of those plays only looked so spectacular because he runs poor routes. The argument about his hockey background might make sense if Morgan were not already 27 and if he had not already had five years in the minors to hone his craft.

McLouth, on the other hand, tied with Doumit for the Pirates’ best OPS+ last year, and he’s one of the better base stealers in baseball. He has a solid base of skills that includes power and patience, and he can handle center field, though he’s not excellent there. And he’s 16 months younger than Morgan. There shouldn’t be any controversy about who the center fielder should be, and hopefully the Bucs will make the right decision.

3. What about Steve Pearce?

Believe it or not, the Pirates’ decision about how to handle Pearce matters more than any transaction they made in this quiet offseason.

Pearce is a first base prospect who rocketed through the top three levels of the minors last year, posting a 1.016 OPS along the way. He also hit pretty well in a brief trial in the bigs in September, and he showed surprising adaptability and athleticism in his first shot at playing right field.

Pearce presents an interesting test for the Pirates’ new management, and so far, they’ve failed it. Here are some 2008 ZiPS projections:

Xavier Nady .259/.319/.449
Steve Pearce .267/.324/.462

There is no good reason for the Pirates not to start Pearce in right field instead of Nady. Pearce will be 25 a couple weeks after the season begins, he has nothing left to prove in the minors, and he is probably already a better player than Nady, as ZiPS projections suggest. The Pirates could have traded LaRoche or Bay to make room for him, or they could have dealt or non-tendered Nady, or simply announced that Nady would be moved to the bench. So far, they haven’t done any of those things, and they plan to have Pearce start the season at Class AAA Indianapolis.

New general managers of bad teams usually inherit lots of players like Nady—competent guys who nonetheless aren’t young and would be mere role players on a good team. Friedman inherited Aubrey Huff (who’d atrophied to Nady-like levels of performance by the time Friedman arrived), Travis Lee and Toby Hall. Melvin was stuck with Jeffrey Hammonds and Eric Young. Friedman was able to package Hall and Mark Hendrickson for an interesting young player in Dioner Navarro, but generally what happens with Nady-type players is they fall by the wayside—they are traded for bags of balls or are simply let go. There is no point in hanging onto Nady in the hope that some team will pony up a top prospect for him, because it’s highly unlikely that any team will. In the meantime, he has no place in the long-term goals of the franchise, and the Pirates’ management is allowing him to block Pearce.

4. How’s the pitching?

Despite a pretty interesting core of young starters, the Bucs allowed 846 runs last year, fifth-worst in the majors. Part of that was their defense—Jose Bautista looked competent at third base but did poorly by most metrics, second baseman Freddy Sanchez played badly in the field while struggling with an early-season knee injury, and Nady and Bay lumbered around in the corner outfield spots. And then there was Paulino.

But the Pirates’ lack of pitching depth was at least as big a problem, as the team endured awful performances by starters Zach Duke, Tony Armas, Matt Morris, B.P. Chacon, Shane Youman, Bryan Bullington and especially John Van Benschoten. (To be fair, Chacon was much better coming out of the bullpen.)

March is the time of year when it’s common for fans to say, “We’ll be better this year, if only because we don’t have Kip Wells / Jason Jennings / Jeff Weaver stinking up the rotation.” But Pirates fans haven’t even been making that mistake this offseason, because the starting pitching depth is so poor. The rotation is really only three-deep: after Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm, Morris and Duke will be back in the last two spots. There’s some chance Duke could rebound (old pitching coach Jim Colborn messed with his mechanics, and Colborn’s not around anymore), but given his horrendous strikeout rates, that seems unlikely.

After that, there just aren’t a lot of options—there’s Kim (who the Pirates say will be used as a reliever), Wright, Dumatrait and then most of the same guys who got knocked around a lot last year. After the front three, the Pirates’ starters are downright bad, and if any of those front three get injured, the season could get very ugly very quickly.

Speaking of which, Gorzelanny’s health is worth watching. Last September, Tracy, in an attempt to preserve his own job and to allow Gorzelanny to pick up his 15th win of the season, let Gorzelanny throw at least 105 pitches in five of his last six 2007 starts, even though he looked gassed for much of that time. That run included one 117-pitch start and one 118-pitch start, both in utterly meaningless games. Gorzelanny was then scratched from his first outing this spring after reporting shoulder trouble. He returned on March 2 and alleviated some of the anxiety by pitching a scoreless inning against the Rays, but he still isn’t a great bet to be healthy and effective all year.

Snell and Maholm look like they should be fine. Maholm, in particular, is a better pitcher than his 2007 line suggests; he got pelted at the end of the year because Tracy allowed him to pitch down the stretch even though Maholm’s back was bothering him.

The Pirates’ bullpen also lacks depth, however. Matt Capps and Damaso Marte were terrific in the late innings last year, but Tracy spent way too much of the 2007 selecting randomly from an endless conveyor belt of bad pitchers. The Pirates’ worst game of the 2007 season came on May 19, when Tracy inexplicably brought in minor league vet Marty McLeary to face Tony Clark with two outs, the bases loaded, and the Pirates up 7-3. Clark hit a grand slam, the Pirates lost by a run, and McLeary was demoted the next day.

One problem was that Tracy was rigid and thoughtless in his use of his relievers, but he also didn’t have a lot to work with. John Russell may be able to fix the first problem, but he won’t be able to fix the second. After Capps, Marte, Kim and John Grabow, the bullpen is a giant question mark. The Pirates will need unproven players like T.J. Beam, Romulo Sanchez, Evan Meek and journeymen like Wright, Hector Carrasco, and Elmer Dessens to fill holes.

5. What kind of young talent can the Bucs acquire?

For Pirates fans, July 31 is like Christmas morning. Each year, there’s a ton of anticipation for the big day. Then August rolls around, Steelers preseason games start, and the Pirates start to seem less inviting than week-old fruitcake.

The problem is that, since the acquisition of Freddy Sanchez at the deadline in 2003, Bucs fans have found only coal in their stockings. In 2006, Littlefield traded Oliver Perez and Roberto Hernandez (who netted the Mets two draft picks) for Nady who, as previously mentioned, doesn’t help the Pirates at all. In 2007, Littlefield made a bizarre deal for Morris and the $14 million remaining on his contract.

There is reason to believe the 2008 deadline will be different. Bay, Nady and LaRoche will all be eligible to leave after the 2009 season, and Sanchez and Wilson may end up becoming free agents then too, depending on what happens to the options on their contracts. If the Pirates don’t deal some of them by the deadline, it’s likely their value on the trade market will dwindle. If Bay starts the season well, he’ll probably be gone. If Pearce continues to hit like he did last year, Nady will probably be gone too. While Nady is unlikely to return much in the way of prospects, Bay just might, and if everything breaks right for the Bucs, LaRoche, Sanchez and Wilson might too.

Still, the best tools for rebuilding a terrible franchise are high draft picks, and the first day of the June draft (in which the Pirates pick second) will be a big one in Pittsburgh. The fans’ incredibly angry reaction to the 2007 draft—in which the Bucs picked pitcher Daniel Moskos, who projects as a reliever, with the fourth pick instead of selecting catcher Matt Wieters—was nothing short of a phenomenon. It fueled a late-June fan protest that wasn’t that impressive in terms of numbers, but that nonetheless generated a ton of media attention and may have hastened the firings of Littlefield, Tracy and scouting director Ed Creech. This year, Pittsburgh fans will be watching Coonelly, Huntington and Smith closely in the hopes that they will pick the best talent available, regardless of the cost.

The draft will be an extremely important day for the Pirates. The cost of botching a top pick—as Littlefield and company did in 2002 with Bryan Bullington and may end up having done in 2006 with Brad Lincoln and in 2007 with Moskos—is simply enormous. If a top pick works out, it’s potentially franchise-changing. The Brewers’ current team would be just another 70-win stinker without top picks Ben Sheets (1999), Prince Fielder (2002), Rickie Weeks (2003) and Ryan Braun (2005). And the Rays wouldn’t have a prayer of fielding a competitive team in the next several years without first rounders Rocco Baldelli (2000), B.J. Upton (2002), Evan Longoria (2006) and David Price (2007), plus Matt Garza, who was acquired in a trade involving top pick Delmon Young (2003).

Delmon Young aside, great young players are only rarely acquired through trades, so teams like the Pirates have to acquire premium amateur talent to get things done. Thanks to the Littlefield administration’s spectacular failure to do so, the 2008 Bucs are likely to find themselves at or near the bottom of the standings, even in the weak N.L. Central. The most important stories about the Pirates this year will thus be about Coonelly and Huntington’s attempts to build for the future.

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