Thursday, September 10, 2009

Pellas on the Pirates: The Season of Our Discontent

Things haven't exactly gone well for the Pirates since the front office blew up the team back in July. On the bright side, the organization as a whole is without question far stronger and deeper than it's been in many years, particularly in the lower minors.

And while the picture is not as bright at Double and Triple-A, there are nonetheless a handful of marquee players in the high minors who are about to hit the big leagues. Their names are Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Daniel McCutchen, and Brad Lincoln. All should be in Pittsburgh to stay no later than midseason in 2010.

So, the cupboard is not exactly bare, even if our cup is not yet running over with young talent.

Still, while it's clear that the front office is looking at the longer term, there remains the small matter of the players who are taking the field for the major league team in the here and now. And it is there, at the top end of the organization, that we find the most unrest, the most volatility, and the most underachievement at the moment. This is not a good thing.

Consider that Ryan Doumit was very publicly smacked down by Manager John Russell, with the full backing of the front office. To all appearances and from most reports, Doumit had it coming. But it's still shameful when a guy as talented as Doumit acts like a petulant Little Leaguer.

To be sure, the team deserves kudos for enforcing standards and discipline. It's just so sadly typical of a losing team and a losing organization that even its good homegrown talent frequently ends up on the lower end of the character scale.

Consider also that Delwyn Young has gone over Niagara Falls in a barrel and has yet to be spotted bobbing in the mist. Was it really only 6 weeks ago that some fans were saying he might even be better than Freddy Sanchez with the bat?

Young has still been an excellent find and one of the best pickups to date by General Manager Neil Huntington, but second base---thought to be Young's for the foreseeable future---is now a big question mark once again.

And as with the shortstop position, the Pirates do not have anyone in the upper minors who is anywhere close to being ready to play second base on a daily basis in the big leagues.

Andy LaRoche has shown a very good glove at third base, and as advertised, he can definitely draw his share of walks. Those two definite pluses to his game make his "traditional" offensive stats look a little bit better, which is to say he's probably a somewhat better player than his high .240s, 8 HR, 50 RBI season to date would otherwise indicate.

But he's still not hitting anywhere near enough, particularly on this mostly punchless team. This has re-opened a door that was long ago thought to be slammed shut, behind which is the forgotten former first rounder, Neal Walker. Walker still can't figure out how to get on base any other way than a hit, and his minor league numbers have never been much better than fairly respectable.

But LaRoche, again, is vulnerable, and whether the team wants to say so publicly or not, third base is Walker's for the taking if he can seize the day. Assuming Pedro Alvarez plays first and not third once he comes to Pittsburgh to stay, we should see a free-for-all in spring training this February between Walker and LaRoche.

I personally think the Pirates need to throw Walker out there every day for the first half of the 2010 season unless he falls totally flat on his face in Bradenton.

Reading between the lines, it appears that team management agrees. All of which is quite an amazing development for Walker, who a mere two months ago was openly questioning whether he had any kind of future in Pittsburgh at all. But Walker is no sure thing. Thus we could still be in for more of the reliable mediocrity of LaRoche for the next year if not longer than that.

The pitching staff is likewise unsettled, and again, the thing that jumps out at me is that it is as uncertain a jumbled mess as it is at this point in time. In other words, most of the upheaval at the trading deadline had to do with the Pirates' position players. It is remarkable to see how much disarray there is in the pitching staff despite the fact that most of the July moves did not involve any of our hurlers.

That said, the one move that did involve our hurlers that has definitely come back to bite us in the hind quarters was the loss of John Grabow to the Cubs. Without Grabow, the bullpen has been extremely inconsistent; some of this, to be sure, is due to the loss of the highly effective Evan Meek, as well as the general stinkage of closer-slash-gascan Matt Capps.

But Grabow, it is clear in hindsight, was the veteran glue that held the 'pen together. Not as much because he is a leftie---though that definitely helped---but because his consistent effectiveness made everyone else's role much more readily defined. Without Grabow---and Meek---the bullpen has been disorganized and ineffective.

Among the starting pitchers, Paul Maholm has regressed after a sterling year and a half run from the second half of 2007 all the way through 2008. Word is that he's been pitching hurt with a bad groin for most of 2009, so I'll reserve judgment until we see how he looks next season.

Either way this bears close scrutiny, because while the Maholm of 07-08 is a workhorse number three starter who is sometimes capable of superb performances, the Maholm of 2009 definitely is not.

Charlie Morton, the centerpiece of the much-despised Nate McLouth trade, has been all over the map since his arrival in Pittsburgh. Morton, too, has been playing hurt, in his case with a bad hamstring. This is a very worrisome injury for any player, but especially for a pitcher.

Morton must show that he is completely healthy in 2010 for this team to make any significant progress, because until further notice, he's your number two starter, sink or swim.

Kevin Hart, who's been trying to show that he should be a starter and not a reliever going forward, has followed a couple of good starts with several very bad ones.

Supposedly pitching coach Joe Kerrigan is doing a teardown-rebuild with him, but once again, this is a very disappointing start for a new Pirate who was thought to be one of the key acquisitions in the July firesale.

To be sure, there have been some very positive developments with this team in an otherwise lost season. Andrew McCutchen has proven to be better than I thought he was, and is without question already the leader of this team.

Daniel McCutchen definitely shows promise in the rotation, and of course Ross Ohlendorf has been lights out for most of the season. Zach Duke's recent meltdowns have not overshadowed his very good year.

Jason Jaramillo and Robinzon Diaz have shown that you could do a lot worse than the two of them as your starting catching tandem. And of course Garrett Jones is amazing.

But all in all, the Pirates just don't look good right now, and that's all there is to it. Even allowing for the inevitable nature of rebuilding jobs throughout the sports world, the team's far-too-many question marks and horrendous second half record are disturbing.

(GW contributor Will Pellas and his thoughts on the rebuilding process - and it seems like it will be ongoing, and ongoing, and...)

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