-- Should the Pirates try to plug a hole or two with free agents? Hey, that horse is out of the corral. No FA worth his oats would come to Pittsburgh; first, the Pirates would have to grossly overpay a decent player, and secondly, Neal Huntington gets rid of them so quickly that they don't have enough time to tell the Mon from the Allegheny.
The only free agents left on the Pirate 40-man roster are Chris Bootcheck, Ramon Hernandez, and Garrett Jones.
-- Is dealing players for prospects the way to go? The Bucs minor league system was running on empty and needed a boost; of that there was no question. But there are problems with making 2 or 3-for-1 deals all the time.
First, the street rule is that 1 of 3 prospects makes it as a viable MLB player. That's why Huntington goes for quantity whenever he can. But...
Eventually, the 40-man roster runs out of room, and your fringe hopefuls get claimed by other teams. Next, the better guys that were protected create a bulge in arbitration eligibility. Remember, agents now consider arbitration years as the new free agency.
The final point is that the Pirates haven't traded for any top guns. All have some flaw, partially because teams are protective of their top-shelf talent, and partially because Pittsburgh hasn't had any difference makers to move, Jay Bay and Freddy Sanchez included. They are both very good players, but not building blocks. So the Pirates are taking some chances with guys that aren't slam-dunks.
-- Are the Pirates any good at evaluating players? That has yet to be seen. Judging by the major trade returns, their eye is a bit out of focus. Ross Ohlendorf looks like a major league pitcher and Andy LaRoche is serviceable, although not at a corner. There's renewed talk about him moving to second if the Delwyn Young experiment blows up in Perry Hill's puss, where both bats are more acceptable.
The rest of the pack? Only time will tell. The guys being force-fed into the MLB grinder are being chewed up so far; they're young and there's a reason their teams thought they were expendable.
One thing that concerns us is the Pirate belief that they can coach up players that other teams couldn't; sounds awfully arrogant to us. After all, the Yankee, Dodger, and Red Sox systems turn out some pretty capable players, and that's where Pittsburgh has been fishing.
There's also the question of scouting. Are the Pirates too reliant on the brave new world of computer generated profiles? Some say about time; others bemoan the lack of immeasurables, like production, attitude and coachability. Only time will tell if their players are better suited for fantasy leagues than MLB baseball, though it must be said that the old eye-ball scouting method didn't turn out so well.
Pedro, Jose, and some of the newbies drafted in the past couple of years are progressing very nicely in the minors. But the biggest step in baseball is from AAA to PNC. They've done well in the draft by all accounts, especially this year, but are seasons away from any possible upgrades in the roster with those two exceptions.
-- Does the madcap trading have a purpose, or is the focus too much on the future? Sooner or later, the MLB team has to show some progress. It's regressed in the past two years, and things look dismal for its short-term outlook.
So the question Pirate fans have is whether the suits will consolidate what they have and try to put together a competitive Pirate team, or are they going to continually recycle major leaguers for prospects? Trades for the sake of bulking up the bushes will turn PNC Park into a ghost town, and it's possible that Huntington's pick-ups will have a longer tenure in Pittsburgh than he does if things don't turn around.
The only way GW can see to reach that goal is to package some of our prospects for a player or two. It won't be next year; the system isn't that deep yet. But until Pittsburgh becomes a destination for free agents - ie, competitive - the only way to bolster the MLB roster will be through trades for proven talent, not more prospects.
-- Is JR the problem or the solution? John Russell has been a lightning rod for the team's performance, and probably unfairly. We question some of his pitching moves, as all armchair GM's will, but the truth is he's trying to juggle nine innings from a staff that's quite a few bricks shy of a load.
The only criticisms GW has so far is that he sits hot batters for completely inexplicable reasons, refuses to drop unproductive guys like Adam LaRoche and Ryan Doumit lower in the order (some of the Bucs batting woes are management inflicted, in more ways than one), and that he bunts way too often.
Hey, let McCutch steal a base or hit behind a runner; and if the pitcher's not batting, let a guy swing with no one out and a runner at second. Senior Circuit or not, we're not fans of giving away outs.
But we'll withhold judgment until he's given a team to manage. His bullpen is constantly shaken up and as consistent as quicksand; even he has to look at the scorecard to see who's in his rotation; and his everyday players haven't been introduced to a razor blade yet.
Our feeling is that if JR is in trouble, it's because the guys upstairs need a scapegoat for the MLB product they cobbled together.
We know the suits were put between a rock and a hard place when they got here. The minors were virtually a little league, and there was no pitching depth at all. They could either continue to patchwork the team or blow it up; they chose the latter. Whether its complete demolition was required or not is the question.
The biggest problem Frank Coonelly and Huntington faced wasn't the lack of an organization; it's how they totally misread the dynamics of Pittsburgh's fans. Being a two-decade joke among MLB teams, especially in a City with Super Bowl and Stanley Cup trophies to its credit, has led to a huge disconnect between the Pirate Nation and its management, especially where spending a buck is concerned.
And while many credit the new suits for their frankness, we find their statements quite disingenuous. Remember early in the season when they said being competitive in 2009 was their goal? Well, now the finish line is 2012. Will it shift again?
Would a slower approach have picked up the pace? Actually, no, it would have hindered it, if anything. But if 2012 is the target date, it would have only been delayed a season or two while the draft picks floated to the top, albeit at the cost of a wad of Bob Nutting cash. And the team on the field would have been competent. That's the trade-off.