Sunday, December 21, 2008

The Path Out Of The Woods

Hey, it's a blustery, windy day in the 'Burgh and apparently all over the baseball universe; we're approaching Christmas shutdown time regarding the hardball news cycle.

And that gives GW a chance to break out the divining rod and try to figure out the direction the new Bucco suits are forging for the team, and a possible timeline for frutition.

Early on, we thought the suits were gonna take a wait-and-see attitude regarding the MLB talent on the club, and try to fill in a few pieces - a third baseman, a couple of bottom-end RHP guys for the rotation and a bench, for starters - to keep the Bucs interesting while spending the majority of its effort on building the farm system.

And while the position players were probably good enough to compete, two things happened to conspire against the double-pronged plan to keep the MLB roster competitive while building from within - the pitching staff imploded and the minors proved to be virtually void of up-and-coming difference makers.

Pirate fans hoped that the return for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte, which netted a pretty fair payback, would be the major move of the season. But when Jay Bay went in the Manny deal, everyone faced the fact that Pittsburgh was once again in full tilt rebuilding mode.

Another "here we go again" moment was the last thing the Pirate faithful wanted to experience. It's almost as if Pirate baseball was the inspiration for "Groundhog Day."

GW agreed that blowing up the team was its best way to to move beyond borderline competitive and eventually contend, even knowing how painful the next couple of season will be in the meantime.

As we see the Pirate plan, step #1 now consists of moving everyone that's on the wrong side of 30 for whatever talent can be amassed, simply because it'll take longer than the older guys have for Buc baseball to click on all cylinders again, and the management has no other chips to fill the farm other than dealing the vets.

The Pittsburgh feeder system under Ed Creech and Dave Littlefield deteriorated so badly that it wasn't a matter of filling in a position, but of bringing in anyone who looked like they could play the game.

They've done pretty well for one season's work in that regard. Andrew McCutchen, Steve Pearce, Brad Lincoln, Brian Bixler, and Neil Walker were virtually all the likely MLB talent on hand, and Shelby Ford, with perhaps Jamie Romak, Danny Moskos, Steve Lerud and Brian Friday having the potential to develop someday into players.

It was a terribly weak system, overloaded with players that projected as relievers and only a handful that that had a shot at starting every fifth day or playing regularly.

They had to immediately address the pitching, which was abysmal at the MLB level and filled with AAAA arms at Indy. At great cost, they brought in Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf, Dan McCutchen, Chris Hansen and Byran Morris.

Karstens and Ohlendorf could be on the 25-man next year, while Morris and McCutchen are already two of the top three pitching prospects in the system.

It also netted Brandon Moss, Andy LaRoche, and Jeff Tabata. Moss may turn into an adequate RFer, or he may settle back into a platoon/fourth outfielder role. He's been a high strikeout guy throughout his career at every level, and that will keep his batting average down.

LaRoche has some demons to overcome. Although the team that knows him best, the Dodgers, couldn't find a spot for him, it's hard to believe so many scouts could be that wrong on his potential.

The new suits can't be faulted for giving him third base. On paper, he's all that. They can be faulted for not trying to light a fire under him with a little accountability, competition, and well-deserved pine time. Handing someone a position didn't work out so well with the pitchers; it's no different with LaRoche.

Tabata is a welcome addition to a minor league outfield that needed big-time help. Some believe that he's among the Pirate's top three positional prospects.

The draft has helped the system, too. Besides Pedro, Neal Huntington brought in a bevy of shortstops than can hit and inked some high school talent. But those guys, with the exception of Alvarez, are at best three years away from the show.

The new gang has also brought a previously unseen commitment to entering the international player pool. They've made strides in Latin America, have an Asian scout, and made a couple of high-profile signings in non-traditional territories that may not have any short-term effect but should pay off down the road by announcing the Pirate's presence to world baseball.

And they're still in a position to scan the waiver wires - Evan Meek joined the Indy after a post Rule 5 deal, and Jimmy Barthmaier has shown some promise.

Also, for better or worse, they've taken the former seat-of-pants teaching of players out of the hands of the minor-league managers and coaches and put together a system that's to be adhered to, covering everything from pitch counts, selection, and innings for their arms to patience in the box for hitters. And they mean it; ignore the book and your coaching career or player advancement will hit a wall.

Hopefully, they're trying to install some discipline and a team plan to help keep everyone on the same page, and will work out individual plans with some flexibility once the playbook is absorbed system-wide.

Now, don't mistake the Pirates' moves as having made the farm system even average yet. But it is obvious that the suits are obsessing over it, and they've taken strides to get it back to snuff. But they need at least two, maybe three, more solid drafts to stock the organization to respectability at all levels.

The minors are the first and overriding concern of the current management team. Almost without exception, every move the new suits have made is to benefit the farm system and infuse the organization with prospects, which is the hand they have to play if the team is to reach any sort of consistent competitive niche.

So if you wonder what the odds of Jack Wilson, John Grabow, Adam LaRoche and Freddy Sanchez finishing out their years in Pittsburgh are, well, don't bet the ranch. The team may not be truly competitive again until 2011-12, and that's too long and too expensive a gap to hang on to the older guys.

The good news is that Huntington is a pretty fair poker player, and plays his hand to the limit instead of just throwing the cards in as his predecessor so often did. The new crew likes to let the pot build and get value for its chips.

One other point, often raised by GW collaborator Will Pellas, is the American League approach of the new suits. The Pirates under Littlefield/Creech looked for gloves in the infield and cutesy pitching. The Huntington/Greg Smith preference is for power arms and infielders that can smack the ball.

Whether that is a long-term trend or just an attempt to counter skills lacking in the current player lineup is yet to be seen. But we think it's something that's a goal of the new management team and will become a benchmark of sorts for future players in the organization.

The Pirate plan, as far as we can see, is to focus all its energy on building a minor league system that will replenish itself, much like Oakland, Minnesota, Cleveland, Tampa Bay and Atlanta. Load it up with power options, and the MLB team will take care of itself with a little bit of tinkering.

The plan seems logical enough, but it does beg a couple of hard questions because of the time frame it sets for talent to percolate through the system to Pittsburgh.

Will the long-suffering fans be able to stand the inevitable wait that's required for a Pirate makeover before finally seeing on-the-field success? And will Bob Nutting be willing to stay the course if the attendance drops along with the on-field product? The competitive future of the franchise depends on the answers.

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