Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Pellas On The Pirates: Just....Kinda.....There

What to say about the Pirates 2009 season thus far? Hello? Bueller? Anybody? Bueller? If I was looking for a soundtrack piece, it would be a recording of crickets chirping. If this season were a retailer, it would be Wal Mart, not Nieman Marcus. If it were a car, it would be a Yugo: drab, barely functional, and unmemorable.

Well, not completely unmemorable. The Nate McLouth trade took care of that. But Nate was just one of three young, homegrown players the Pirates signed to multiyear contracts this past offseason. Supposedly, these three---McLouth, catcher Ryan Doumit, and staff ace Paul Maholm---were to form the core around which the next contender would be built.

Certainly, it might be debated whether any or all of the three are truly the types of players who could be the foundation for a team that could take a run at a World Series. McLouth and Maholm, while both well above average, are not elite players. Doumit might have the raw ability to be an elite player---at least compared with most current major league catchers---but his enormous talent does us no good when he is constantly in the trainer's room.

So, the front office decided to blow up the putative foundation it had just laid, and return to zero in the ongoing---never-ending?---rebuilding process. In trying to determine whether they did the right thing by dealing McLouth and then drafting Doumit's near-future heir apparent, collegiate catcher Tony Sanchez, I think we should start by looking at the performance of the team as a whole, and the would-be core in particular.

McLouth is having another highly productive year; even though his batting average is off nearly 20 points from last year's .276 mark, his combined stats for Pittsburgh and Atlanta show another 20-20, .800-plus season is all but guaranteed. Again, Cooperstown, it ain't. But very solid major league numbers, it is. So, Nate was worth the contract, whether in Pittsburgh or in Atlanta.

Unfortunately, Doumit has been hurt almost all season, and now we will never know how well the team would have done with all three of its young guns firing at the same time. In addition, the front office appears to have given up on Doumit. Surely the drafting of Sanchez means Doumit is next on the trading block, because the team also has two fine young catchers in Jason Jaramillo and Robinzon Diaz. While neither is Doumit and neither is a world beater, you could certainly do worse than a platoon of the two while you wait for Sanchez to arrive.

Likewise, Maholm's season has unquestionably been a mild disappointment. While most observers figured he pitched a little over his head last year, make no mistake: he was VERY good in 2008 and almost as good for most of 2007. 2009? Meh. Sure, he's continued to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in the form of a shameful lack of run support. Many fine Maholm outings over the past two and a half years have been wasted because the team just doesn't score for him. But there's no question he has fallen back to the pack in '09. Is he terrible? Certainly not. Is he still the best we've got? Definitely. Is he, right now, the same pitcher he was in 07 - 08? Not even close.

And so it goes up and down the roster. No one stands out, other than, perhaps, second baseman Freddy Sanchez, whose comeback has now proven beyond all doubt that he can flat-out rake. But Sanchez alone is not enough to carry this lineup. The LaRoche brothers have been consistent, but consistently a tick above average and no higher. Same with most if not all of our other players. Only Andrew McCutchen seems to have real star potential, and even he looks more Marquis Grissom than Barry Bonds---except that Andrew can't steal bases the way Grissom could despite being almost as fast.

This team isn't terrible, even if it should have kept the "Medium-Sized Three" intact for the entire year before making the next move. Even now the Pirates are not, in theory, out of contention---even though we all know that they really are. And yes, it would have been nice to have a somewhat competitive and interesting team on the field while the organization was rebuilt from within. Many pundits consider it impossible to win while rebuilding, but others have done it before and it will be done again. But whether this was do-able in Pittsburgh or not, McLouth is gone, Doumit soon will be, and Maholm has taken a definite step back. What's left beyond them isn't's just...kinda....there.

Thanks to GW contributor Will Pellas for his take on the yo-yo Pirates and their rebuilding process as it stands so far this season.

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