Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Pellas on the Pirates: Reflections

A Season of Ironies

If the blogosphere is any indication, most Pirates fans are spending the All Star Break in feverish speculation about which veteran(s) will be traded by the deadline and which team's hotshot prospect(s) will be coming our way in return. While such speculation is fun, it's also wearisome beyond a certain point. So, I thought to take keyboard in hand and reflect for a moment or two on the 2008 season to date, which has been one of extreme irony thus far.

It cannot be doubted that the previous regime, for all of its well-documented incompetence, nonetheless decided very early on that it was going to sink or swim with pitching. The current Pirates staff, particularly the starters, is still largely made up of Littlefield-era draft picks and acquisitions. Of course, perhaps the greatest frustration of that era was seeing number one choice after number one choice crash and burn with one horrific injury after another.

Even so, one would think that just by sheer force of numbers, at least some of the numerous pitchers chosen under Littlefield would have developed by now into solid assets. If we were talking about the Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny of 2007 instead of 2008, and if it were possible to couple them with the Paul Maholm of 2008 and the Zach Duke of 2005, well: now we'd be talking about a better than average if never overwhelming starting rotation.

Unfortunately, Snell and Gorzelanny have imploded this year, Snell (perhaps) due to a sore elbow and Gorzelanny (allegedly) not due to injury. Meanwhile Zach Duke has managed to smoke-and-mirrors his way to a more or less average season thus far, and given where we are as an organization, we'll take it until/unless we can get someone better---though it looks more and more like his stellar rookie half-season was a fluke.

That leaves Maholm, who is at the moment unquestionably our best starting pitcher. Good for him, bad for us overall, since Maholm is miscast as a staff ace---he's really a fairly good third or fourth starter on a good team. Fifth starter Phil Dumatrait was outstanding for about six weeks before his balky arm acted up again. He may or may not prove able to take a regular turn in the future. He was a number one draft choice himself once upon a time, so perhaps we'll get a big payoff from a scrapheap signing going forward.

But all in all, it is ironic to say the least that the 2008 Pirates are the mirror opposite of what we thought they'd be going in. The pitching staff is, to put it kindly, somewhere between horrible and mediocre, overall. The bullpen has been slightly better than the rotation, but that's not saying much.

Meanwhile the hitting---thought to be, to put it kindly, somewhere between horrible and mediocre heading into the season---has been outstanding. The Green Weenie is so impressed, in fact, that without even blinking, it mentioned this year's starting outfield of Nate McLouth, Xavier Nady, and Jason Bay in the same breath as the 1927 outfit that featured Kiki Kuyler and the Waners.

That assessment may or may not prove accurate over time, but there's no question the Pirates' hard-hitting starting outfield has been a revelation. Add in the supremely talented bat of catcher Ryan Doumit, and not even overexposed utilityman Jose Bautista and perpetual slow-starting streak hitter Adam LaRoche's stinkage can dim an outstanding first half of hitting.

In short: we have a good hitting, poor pitching team when we were thought to have the polar opposite coming into 2008. Given the more or less established fact that pitching is the single most important factor in winning baseball games, it's borderline miraculous that the Pirates somehow managed to slug their way to a not-terrible 44-50 record at the All Star Break. The 2007 Bucs had 40 wins at the Break before Edmund Fitzgerald-ing their way to the bottom.

The bottom line is that it looks like the Pirates will once again be looking for pitching, pitching, and more pitching in exchange for any of their veteran position players that get traded by the deadline, the more so because the few top prospects who are nearly ready to graduate from the minors are all position players (McCutchen, Walker, and Pearce).

Very ironic, eh?

The GW is pleased to have Will Pellas pitch his thoughts on the state of the Pirates when it's his turn in the rotation.

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