Five questions: Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pirates stink, have stunk since the beginning of time, have had 17 straight losing seasons, blah blah blah. Let’s skip the rest of the throat-clearing, shall we? It’s too depressing.

1. How will changes to the defense affect the starting rotation?

That any part of the 2009 Pirates’ 62-99 team “performed” may surprise some of you, and for good reason. But the fact remains that most of the Bucs’ rotation was fine, at least on the surface, with four of its five main starters (Ross Ohlendorf, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Charlie Morton) all posting ERAs of 4.55 or below. This is a pitch-to-contact bunch, though (Duke and Maholm have made their careers that way, and while Ohlendorf and Morton might have the stuff to post high strikeout rates in the majors, they haven’t done it yet), and pitch-to-contact types rely heavily on their defense.

The Pirates’ defense, lousy throughout much of the aughts, was passable last year, but that might change in 2010. The Pirates are entrusting first base to Jeff Clement, who has barely played the position even in the minors. Their shortstop will be Ronny Cedeno, who’s competent enough but is still a large defensive downgrade from Jack Wilson, one of baseball’s best defenders.

Contrary to his reputation, Lastings Milledge played left field capably and enthusiastically down the stretch last year, but he lacks Nyjer Morgan‘s spectacular range. And Garrett Jones, although he helps offensively, is much worse in the field than last year’s opening day right fielder, Brandon Moss. The only positions where the Pirates can expect to improve much are center field, where the speedy and sure-handed Andrew McCutchen took over for Nate McLouth last June, and perhaps second base, where Akinori Iwamura replaces Freddy Sanchez and the abominable Delwyn Young.

That’s important, and one need only look at Duke’s career to see why. Put Duke in front of a decent defense like the one he had last year, and he’s fine. Put him in front of a bad defense, like the ones he had in 2007 and 2008, and he’s a mess. His BABIPs have been .360 in 2007, .327 in 2008 and .296 in 2009, and those numbers track pretty closely with his ERAs. While the changes in BABIP among those years appear to involve some random variance, they also have a lot to do with the Pirates’ fielding, which converted far more balls in play into outs in 2009 than in either 2008 or 2007. The defensive downgrade this year is likely to affect Duke more intensely than it will affect the Bucs’ other starters, but unless they increase their strikeout rates, they’re all very vulnerable.

2. Who is the real Garrett Jones?

Entering the 2009 season, Garrett Jones was just another aging, lumbering minor league slugger with little defensive value, basically indistinguishable from Mitch Jones or Brian Myrow or Brad Eldred or Andy Tracy or Cory Aldridge or… well, you get the picture. Usually when a career journeyman inexplicably has a huge season, it’s a fluke. In 2008, for example, aging nobodies Ryan Ludwick, Ty Wigginton and Jody Gerut all came up big; in 2009, they just took big steps backward. And to compare the pre-2009 version of Jones to any of those players would be extremely generous to Jones, who before last year had been floundering in the Minnesota Twins system for the better part of a decade.

If Jones has one thing going for him, it’s that he sustained a high level of production for the entire season. He hit 33 homers between Triple-A and the majors, and he didn’t do that because of some hot streak—including his time in the minors, he only had one month with an OPS below .850. He also hit for average, took some walks, and stole some bases; there wasn’t much to dislike about his offensive performance, or an obvious flaw that will bring him down.

It’s likely that 2009 was a career peak for Jones, but it was too good a season to be dismissed completely. He probably won’t post a .938 OPS again, which is a shame for a Pirates team that desperately needs impact players, but like Ludwick, he should hit well enough to keep a job.

3. Are reclamation projects a good idea?

For better or for worse, the Pirates appear to be trying to answer this question by generating as much data as possible. During the 2008 and 2009 seasons, the Pirates found themselves in a tricky situation—they were terrible at the major league level, and many of their core players were entering their 30s and were about to become free agents. Pirates GM Neal Huntington did the sensible thing by shopping as many of those players as he could, but he found that other teams were understandably unwilling to part with top prospects for the Pirates’ crew of mediocrities.

Instead, most of the players Huntington grabbed fit into one of two groups. One of those was speculative, Single-A-type prospects, who tended to be tall starting pitchers. The other was players with obvious talent who the Pirates’ trading partners had become annoyed with or disinterested in.

The Bucs’ 2010 roster will be filled with players who fall into the latter category. Despite his being the third overall pick in the everybody-gets-a-star 2005 draft, the Mariners never found much use for Clement, who struggled with his defense behind the plate and with injuries. For years, the Dodgers jerked around third baseman Andy LaRoche, despite his being one of their best prospects. No one disputes the talent of Milledge, but his attitude proved to be too much for both the Mets and Nationals. Ohlendorf was the main piece in the Randy Johnson trade for the Yankees, but he struggled in the Yankees organization and was shipped to the Pirates in the Xavier Nady/Damaso Marte deal.

These players all stand a decent chance of at least being average, but given their histories, there’s also reason to hope that one of them gets back on track for a few years of stardom, much in the same way Carlos Pena or Edwin Jackson did. Given the quality of the veterans the Pirates were trading away—and the reluctance of today’s general managers to trade top prospects—that’s probably the best the Bucs could have hoped for.

4. Will the veteran bullpen produce?

Frankly, it will have to, because there isn’t a ton of talent in the minors to fill in if things go wrong. Pirates fans spent a lot of energy this offseason worrying about the bullpen, not necessarily because the bullpen was the team’s most pressing problem, but because of Huntington’s controversial decision to non-tender closer Matt Capps after a terrible 2009 season. Given that other general managers will often overpay for “closers,” it might have been worthwhile to take Capps to arbitration with the hope of trading him if he performed well. Huntington’s backup plan, though, wasn’t bad—he grabbed an arguably better pitcher, Octavio Dotel, to close for a similar price. Dotel’s age, flyball tendencies, and trouble with lefties could combine to make him a risky proposition in lefty-friendly PNC Park, but his ability to rack up strikeouts still makes him a solid gamble.

To fill out the bullpen, Huntington also signed Brendan Donnelly, D.J. Carrasco and Javier Lopez for good value. Donnelly pitched brilliantly last year for the Marlins, and he and Carrasco, who led the majors in relief innings last year, could be especially helpful. The infusion of talent was badly needed—the Pirates’ 2009 4.61 bullpen ERA was worse than that of any other NL team except the Nationals, and the only decent arms left over from 2009′s mediocre Pirates pen were Joel Hanrahan, who could start the year on the disabled list, and Evan Meek.

5. What will the future bring?

2010 won’t be the Pirates’ year, but the organization is no longer completely hopeless. 2009 saw the debut of the brilliant McCutchen; in 2010, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and outfielder Jose Tabata will probably join him. Thanks largely to a series of miserable drafts by Huntington’s predecessor, Dave Littlefield, the upper levels of the Pirates’ minor league system are still thin after Alvarez and Tabata. But the lower levels are packed with more talent than the Pirates have had in years, thanks to the Bucs’ series of trades last year and to their last two drafts, in which they’ve spent more combined than any other team.

To a Pirates fan impatient with well over a decade of losing, improvement at the Single-A level is pretty thin gruel. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and for a team that will probably never have a top-10 payroll, “somewhere” inevitably means the farm system.

There are still a number of questions to be answered about the people currently running the Pirates. Will Huntington have the talent evaluation chops necessary to turn a reasonable core of young talent into a real contender? Will owner Bob Nutting finally raise the payroll to the $80 million range if Huntington can get the team to the verge of contention? But for once, it isn’t ridiculous to imagine winning baseball in the Pirates’ future. It won’t happen this year, and it probably won’t in 2011, but for the first time in years, the Bucs are headed in the right direction.

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Comments

  1. wickethewok said...

    I like the phrase “the everybody-gets-a-star 2005 draft”.  That really was a remarkable first round.

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