Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Pirate Prognosis

Have a great holiday. And for those of you that can tear yourselves away from the grill and cooler for your daily Bucco jones, here's Will and Ron’s view of the state of the 2008 Bucs:

The Pirates will spend the last month of the year in audition mode. What’s your take for 2009 and beyond?

Ron: More lumps until 2010 at the best, more likely 2011. The offense will be adequate, we think, with Ryan Doumit, Nate McLouth, Brandon Moss, Andy LaRoche and Andrew McCutchen, but the staff is still all middle-to-back enders. The only thing that could hasten the process is if Snell and Maholm become front-line pitchers. Brad Lincoln, Bryan Murphy, Quinton Miller and Nelson Pereira are seasons away, if they ever arrive.

And we still have to see the infield makeover; almost certainly Adam LaRoche, Jack Wilson, and Freddy Sanchez will last out no more than another season, if that. They’ll still work the waiver wires, too. So another wave of youth and freshly scrubbed faces will wash over PNC.

Will: I honestly think our pitching staff will be fine. By “fine” I mean, better than average in the short term, with the potential to be legitimately good by 2010-2011. If Brad Lincoln has made it to Pittsburgh by then, and if he is anywhere close to 100% physically, he has the potential to be the best collegiate pitcher to hit MLB since Mark Prior. Meanwhile, let’s assume that the Paul Maholm we saw this season is the real Paul Maholm and not merely a decent fourth starter who’s pitching way over his head. Add a similar performance next season to a rebound by Snell and/or Gorzellany, mix in the dependable Karstens for a whole year, sprinkle liberally with Ohlendorf and McCutchen, and all of a sudden…hmm, not bad!

Unfortunately, that leaves the offense.

Our offense stinks. Period. The team is made up of one-dimensional, station-to-station hitters with the lone exception of Nate McLouth. Andrew McCutchen might help to some extent, but he’s a rookie and also apparently doesn’t really know how to steal bases despite his raw footspeed (which is very good, but oh well). The jury is out on Andy LaRoche at third base; if he keeps stinking, it could re-open the door for faded prospect Neil Walker. Jack Wilson is what he is at shortstop---which is to say, a great glove and an okay-for-his-position bat, but also a guy who’s more valuable to a good team than to this one---and Freddy Sanchez at second doesn’t help you much if he’s not hitting for an exceptional batting average. That’s because, like almost every other current Pirate, he doesn’t hit for much power, and he doesn’t steal any bases.

Adam LaRoche at first base is…okay. There are better ballplayers at his position around MLB, and there are worse. The real issue with him is financial. Adam made some noise this past spring training about his next contract, and sounded a pretty hard line. Add that to his decent but definitely not overwhelming production, and it would seem that he’s a candidate to be dealt by the trade deadline in ’09 if not sooner. However, when you look at the rest of our roster, current or projected, and see almost no one with any power (let alone speed), it might actually be wise to overpay to keep him around. We’ll see.

Otherwise, Ryan Doumit is definitely the real deal and a real plus bat at catcher, but of course must still prove he’s past his tendency to get hurt all the time. I will say that if he’s healthy all year in ’09, our offense will look a lot better. Still substandard to be sure ,but a lot better. Brandon Moss looks pretty good at one corner spot and has shown more power than I thought he had. He’s not headed for Cooperstown, but he appears to be a solid bet going forward. McLouth is probably the best player the Pirates have at present, and his late season fade can be blamed on a persistent virus that knocked him out for more than a week and that probably affected him for a lot longer than that.

The 2009 starting outfield would figure to be Moss, McCutchen, and McLouth left to right, and that’s pretty good, especially defensively. But McCutchen’s rookie growing pains added to the rest of our offensive impotence means it will probably be 2010 before we see any real improvement in our run scoring. That in turn means another long season in ’09 despite our much better pitching and somewhat better team defense.

Were the suits right in trading the present for the future?

Will: Yes, they were. The return the Pirates received in the Bay and Nady/Marte trades was about as good as we could reasonably have expected. We got a wholesale infusion of not great, but definitely interesting pitching talent, along with two young position players (Moss and Andy LaRoche) who had nothing left to prove in the minors. All in all, there’s no question whatsoever that the Pirates are a better team and a better organization from top to bottom, than they were prior to the trades.

Unfortunately, Andy LaRoche has continued to struggle since arriving in Pittsburgh, and he has displayed the same problems with the stick that he showed in Los Angeles. To be fair, he’s coming off both a thumb injury and a bad back, but surely he’s got to show something soon. Unfortunately, too, the need to sacrifice Bay and Nady in order to acquire pitching only served to highlight the fact that even before the trades, the Pirates were not a balanced offensive team despite their ability to mash. The team must now address its offensive deficiencies going forward before it will be legitimately competitive.

Ron: Without a doubt. The team was in the same old rut, sometimes entertaining but never playoff competitive. The minors were a shamble from top to bottom. The team took a vicious short-term blow, but the organization needed a makeover if it was to ever shake its sad sack performance. It’s a slow process and will sorely try Pittsburgh fans that love baseball more than fireworks, bobbleheads, and concerts. It’ll show in attendance, but that’s a bullet they’ll have to bite. Hopefully, it’ll serve as a prod, too.

How would you rate John Russell and the field staff’s first campaign?

Ron: Coaching a team with so much turnover, so many injuries, and so little pitching would try the talents of John McGraw, much less a first-year skipper. And we like his quiet demeanor. The last thing this team needed was a drama queen at the helm.

He uses everyone, too - with the exception of Bryan Bullington - and that's a welcome change from the past when guys were buried on the bench.

There are things he does that make us tear our gray hairs out. The constant tinkering with the lineup, the lack of aggressiveness on the basepaths – not just stealing sacks, but going from first to third or second to home – lack of fundamental play in the field, and keeping late inning guys on the mound for 2 inning stints or more, burning out an already overworked bullpen, stick out.

We're also a little unsure of his communication with the team. Gorzo and Bautista seemed stunned at their demotion. They were deserved, but it doesn't seem like Russell presented that as an option to them. That may be his bad, or maybe just denial on the players part. Still, he looks like an old school guy that runs his web through the locker room vets rather than one-on-one.

But we’re more than willing to see what he can do with a stable roster. He’s spent the year trying to make lemonade out of lemons, and we’re not ready to throw stones. It will be interesting to see if Jeff Andrews gets another shot with the hurlers, though an upsurge in the pitching since the trades may have saved his tweakin’ ways for another day. Don Long seems to have gotten the hitters to buy into more disciplined at bats, and that’s long overdue. And we think Gary Varsho is a manager waiting to happen.

Will: My biggest beef with John Russell is that he looks for all the world like he is trying to manage the Boston Red Sox when he’s actually managing the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although his ultraconservative managing strategy might be somewhat dictated by the team’s current personnel, there’s still no way that Nate McLouth, for example, should have just 14 steals for the entire season as we head into September. Russell, in short, does not push the action despite having a team that is badly lacking in both speed and home run power. While he can’t do anything about our paucity of power and speed, he can still be far more aggressive and innovative at creating runs than he has been to this point. It is still possible (and with this team, it is mandatory) to take the action to the enemy far more aggressively than the Pirates have shown this season.

What are your thoughts on the Huntington era so far?

Will: I’m not concerned about losing the likes of Paulino, Castillo, and Bautista, and while it would have been nice to have Torres in our bullpen, by himself he wasn’t going to make the difference between winning and losing, and he had had a huge spat with ownership and management prior to Huntington taking over. Regardless of who was right in that dispute, it was time for him to move on. All in all I am convinced that losing the players above was mostly addition by subtraction.

The deadline deals showed beyond all doubt that Neil Huntington is a much tougher and more competent customer in trade negotiations than Dave Littlefield ever was. His first draft likewise netted a far better and much deeper class than any of Littlefield’s drafts did, regardless of how much (if at all) Littlefield was hamstrung by financial constraints. Huntington also made a number of smart, good-sense signings and trades before and during the season that brought in highly useful guys such as Doug Mientkiewicz, Tyler Yates and Jason Michaels, among others.

So far, so good overall, though of course the final act of this play has yet to be written. But the early reviews are definitely positive, overall.

Ron: We think they are trying to stay on track to beef up the system and keep the team somewhat capable on the field. The draft was one of the better ones, certainly in recent memory. Whether that has to do with scouting, the budget available to them, or a swing in philosophy will be seen in future rounds, but we liked bringing in some young talent, especially high school players, to counter a gray-bearded minor league system. And the veteran bench, though lacking pop, was a needed counter for a teamload of puppies.

But we still have a couple of questions that time will answer. We’re still not convinced their eye is any sharper at spotting talent – well, except for Dave Littlefield’s – than anyone else’s. It looks like they’re roping in everyone they can to see who sticks, although that may be more a reflection of the state of the farm than their abilities. We do expect more movement in the scouting ranks, too.

And every pitcher doesn’t need to be 6’6” with a 96 MPH fast ball. We don’t know if that’s become an institutional benchmark, or if they were just addressing a need. The old suits certainly went overboard in the other direction, so it may be a temporary adjustment to balance the pitching options.

We’re also a little concerned that they are a bit overeager to make their own name and are dumping guys – Solly Torres, Jose Castillo, Ronny Paulino, & Jose Bautista all come to mind – that were possibly useful pieces but identified with the old regime. Performance counts, but it looks like they intend to clean house.

Finally, what’s your take on the whole Pedro mess?

Ron: There are so many subplots, it’d be a bestseller in paperback. Ego, professional rivalry, corporate one-upping, late round teams highballing the pot, collusion charges… There are also underlying currents that we don’t think will ever come out, but from what we gather, Pedro agreed to the deal without Boras’ blessing, and in the aftermath, the agent talked him into believing that he left as much money on the table as he took home, and he’d be better off diving into next year’s draft, even without any leverage. We think Boras is overplaying his cards, but that will be seen soon enough.

Will: Boras is a cancer, and both he and Pedro are dysfunctional egomaniacs. I would be perfectly happy to see our front office tell both of them where to go. Let’s hope that Pedro enjoys the thrills and chills of playing indy-league ball, because that and a massive reduction in his signing bonus next year are what await him.

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