Five questions: Pittsburgh Pirates

We’re here to discuss five questions, but there’s no question that the 2009 Pirates will set a dubious record by posting their 17th losing season in a row, the longest such skid in the history of American professional sports. The good news is that this long period of futility is largely the fault of front office figures who have long since departed, and the Pirates mostly appear to be back on track. As ever, Pirates fans will watch the current edition of the team while keeping one eye on the future. With that in mind:

Who’s in the outfield?

The Pirates dealt Jason Bay and Xavier Nady near the trading deadline last year, and their outfield has been in flux ever since. Nate McLouth will start the year in center, but despite the last year’s Gold Glove, he isn’t a plus defender there (although he probably isn’t as bad as most statistics indicate, either), and he may move to a corner when Andrew McCutchen arrives.

McCutchen is the best prospect to come through the Pirates’ system in several years. That says as much about the Pirates’ farm system as it says about McCutchen, but McCutchen should still be a solid regular, at least. He brings a solid approach at the plate and good contact ability, along with speed and defense. His power hasn’t come along yet, but he might hit 20 homers a year in his prime. He’ll probably start the year at Triple-A Indianapolis, but a hot start there will likely earn him a promotion.

In the meantime, the Bucs’ starting right fielder is likely to be Brandon Moss, who was acquired from the Red Sox in the Bay trade. Moss had knee surgery in the offseason, though, and has missed much of spring training with wrist troubles. He’s probably a fourth outfielder on a good team if healthy, but he does have bits of power and patience and may have an outside shot at a .280/.350/.470 kind of season if he gets enough playing time. Fortunately for him, he’s with the right organization.

Left field is open. Nyjer Morgan, a 28-year-old minor league vet with good speed but no power or understanding of how to play the game, began the spring as the presumptive starter. He’s been disappointing in camp, though, leading to speculation that Craig Monroe could start instead. About the only thing more depressing than Morgan winning a starting corner outfield job would be Monroe winning one—Monroe wasn’t even a good player in his prime, as his career .301 OBP suggests, and he has been declining since 2004. Eric Hinske could also be in the mix for the last starting outfield position.

Who’s in the rotation?

The 2008 Pirates allowed 884 runs, 59 more than any other National League team. Bucs starters posted a 5.36 ERA and were indeed a big part of the problem, but they faced a very difficult situation: the Pirates’ 2008 defensive efficiency was third-worst in the majors, and the outfield in particular was wretched. That should improve somewhat this year, with McCutchen and Morgan taking playing time that Bay and Nady would have received last year. Also, the Pirates’ recent acquisitions of Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Daniel McCutchen (via trade) and Jimmy Barthmaier and Virgil Vasquez (via waiver claims) will prevent the Pirates from having to use the likes of Yoslan Herrera or John Van Benschoten in their rotation or to allow a plainly-injured Tom Gorzelanny to pitch 105 innings, as they did in 2008.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the starting pitching isn’t any good (and neither is the bullpen, incidentally). Paul Maholm is the nominal ace, but he’s a third starter on a good team. Beyond that, the remaining options are dicey: Ian Snell, Zach Duke, Gorzelanny, and the aforementioned recent acquisitions. Of those, Snell is probably the best bet to perform well in 2009, and even he sounds like he has no idea what went wrong in 2008. Duke would be a decent back-end starter with good fielders behind him, but he allows too many balls in play for the Pirates’ sorry defense. Maholm, Snell and Duke will probably form the front three in the rotation, and Ohlendorf and Karstens are the best bets for the last two spots.

Will the real Andy LaRoche please stand up?

When the Pirates grabbed Andy LaRoche in the Bay deal, it looked like they were buying low on a terrific young hitter whose previous organization wasn’t enlightened enough to appreciate him. His first two months with the Pirates, however, quickly made the Dodgers’ reluctance to start him seem entirely reasonable, as he showed little in the field and was a disaster at the plate. His record of hitting for average, walks and power in the minors, along with his solid reputation among prospect hounds, suggested he’d be much better. So what happened?

One possibility is that he played hurt the entire year. LaRoche tore a ligament in his thumb in spring training in 2008, had surgery, and missed the first several weeks of the season. When he returned, he showed less power than usual in a stint in the Dodgers’ minor league system, posting a .146 isolated power at Triple-A Las Vegas compared to a .280 there in 2007. He also didn’t hit for much power in brief bursts of major league action with the Dodgers. The other problems that appeared when he was with the Pirates, such as poor defense and swinging at bad pitches may have arisen out of his frustration with his sudden inability to hit the ball hard.

The Pirates’ management has a lot riding on LaRoche’s future and undoubtedly hopes that his struggles with the Bucs were purely the result of injury and not an early peak. LaRoche, his thumb now apparently healthy, has hit .389 in Spring Training through Monday and has, by all accounts, looked nothing like the player he was in 2008, so there’s reason to again be cautiously optimistic about his future.

What happens to the veterans?

The Pirates’ trades of Bay, Nady, and Damaso Marte last year must have the Bucs’ veterans wondering who will be dealt next. Along with Hinske and Ramon Vazquez (both acquired this offseason to upgrade the bench) and minor league free agents Monroe and Andy Phillips, the oldest players on the Pirates’ likely 25-man roster are first baseman Adam LaRoche, second baseman Freddy Sanchez, shortstop Jack Wilson, and relievers John Grabow and Tyler Yates. Of those, LaRoche and Grabow are free agents after 2009, and Sanchez and Wilson have team options for 2010 that the Bucs will probably buy out.

Adam LaRoche and Grabow are the best bets to go. LaRoche has a longstanding history of hitting like Willie Bloomquist in the first two months of the season and Willie Stargell in the last two, so the Pirates should be able to market him as a game-changing slugger at the trade deadline whether or not he hits early in the season. Grabow has become a solid lefty setup man and should bring back a couple of prospects at the deadline, if not well before; the Pirates are currently listening to offers.

Will this front office lead the Pirates back to respectability?

The Pirates’ front office, headed by team president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington, appears to be pursuing the only plan that will work for a low-payroll team. They spent lavishly on their first draft in 2008, shelling out big bucks for first-rounder Pedro Alvarez and late-round picks Robbie Grossman and Quinton Miller. In an effort to repair a Latin American talent pipeline that completely stopped up after years of negligence under former GM Dave Littlefield, the Pirates have also recently begun building a Dominican facility that will rank among the best in the country.

The new administration has also been creative in finding new talent from abroad, signing South African shortstop Mpho Ngoepe and Indian pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel. Finally, Coonelly and Huntington have targeted high-upside prospects, such as Jose Tabata and former Dodgers first-round pick Bryan Morris, in trades. If the Pirates are to succeed, they must have a good core of young talent they can control cheaply, and they finally appear to understand this.

There are three potential problems that could befall the new administration even if the prospects they’re developing do pan out. The first is that the possibility that the Pirates’ ownership won’t be willing to raise payroll when the Bucs’ youngsters are ready to take the next step. There is ample reason for fans to be suspicious; the team’s $51 million 2008 payroll was 27th in baseball even though similar markets in Cincinnati and Milwaukee hosted much more expensive teams. The Pirates’ 2009 payroll doesn’t look to be much higher, and the Bucs don’t exactly have a record of spending freely.

In defense of the Pirates’ ownership, their willingness to spend on the draft and the Dominican facility are great signs, and the Bucs’ honchos have said, very reasonably, that it doesn’t make sense to raise payroll until there’s a competitive core in place. It would, of course, be silly for the current Pirates to sign a bunch of expensive veterans (few of whom would be willing to play for the Pirates right now anyway), who would likely require long-term deals that would be liabilities by the next time the Bucs could be competitive, and so the ownership is right to avoid boosting the payroll just to prove they can. But it’s hard not to identify with the fans’ frustration and their worries that the payroll will never rise significantly.

Another potential snag that could catch the Pirates’ long-term plan might come from those same fans, many of whom have already turned on Huntington and Coonelly. As Wilbur Miller has pointed out, the more Huntington and Coonelly distinguish themselves from Littlefield, the angrier the fans get, which is ironic, since Littlefield is arguably the person most responsible for the Pirates’ current predicament. Littlefield left the organization in utter disrepair, from the major league team all the way down to rookie ball.

It took Andrew Friedman two and a half years to fix the Rays, and Friedman had the benefit of a very good farm system to work with. Huntington and Coonelly inherited a Rays-like situation at the major league level and one of the worst farm systems in baseball. Fans were furious with Huntington and Coonelly after they’d been on the job less than a year, and it’s going to take at least a couple more before the Pirates show real progress in the majors. These next two years will be very tough for the Pirates, and the ownership needs to have the resolve to stick with the plan.

A third potential area of concern that might prevent the Pirates from achieving their goals is that Huntington and Coonelly’s skills as evaluators of talent haven’t yet been tested. The most important players they’ve acquired so far—Alvarez, Grossman, Miller, Tabata, Morris—haven’t yet played much for the organization.

We know a lot more about their less important acquisitions, and the results so far have been uninspiring. Their strategy for acquiring relievers thus far has largely consisted of grabbing the hardest throwers they can find, regardless of their ability to find the plate. For example, last offseason Huntington dealt Todd Redmond—now a decent starting pitching prospect—to the Braves for Tyler Yates. Yates racked up walks for the Pirates in 2008 and was completely untrustworthy in any situation that required him to keep batters from reaching base. Many of Huntington’s other acquisitions, including Denny Bautista, Evan Meek, and Craig Hansen, were exactly the same way.

The Pirates’ 2008 bench was also a mess. When shortstop Jack Wilson got hurt early in the season, the Bucs turned to minor league free agent Luis Rivas, a terrible hitter whom the Pirates’ own statistical analyst, Dan Fox, had earlier described as one of the worst defensive second basemen of the past 50 years. The results were predictable, and the performances the Pirates got from fellow bench players like Jason Michaels and Luis Cruz weren’t much better. The only bench player who was worth the playing time he received was Doug Mientkiewicz.

In fairness to Huntington and Coonelly, these were all low-risk, low-reward acquisitions, and it ultimately doesn’t matter much who pitches the sixth inning or pinch hits for a 95-loss team. It also appears that they may have learned their lesson, signing substantially better players in Hinske and Vazquez for this year’s bench. But when the Pirates pay a steep price for, say, Andy LaRoche, only to have him crater spectacularly, it’s possible for a cynical observer to see a pattern, and worry that a dark future awaits the more important group of players Huntington and Coonelly have acquired.

Despite all that, though, Huntington and Coonelly have gotten the big things right so far, and they deserve the benefit of the doubt. In 2009, many serious Pirates fans will pay at least as much attention to the actions of the front office as they do to the results on the field, hoping that Huntington and Coonelly are capable of finally leading the franchise out of the woods.

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