Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Shape Of Things To Come...

OK, for the past two hot stove leagues, Pirate faithful have scratched their heads and wondered what in God's good earth were the suits doing to their team? But this season, there actually may be an answer swirling in the mist.

GW was among those that thought the team could be competitive - not championship, mind you, but competitive - with some tinkering and patience. The suits differed.

Our guess is that they were just feeling out the organization when the pitching imploded in 2008, and the minors were found to be virtually devoid of MLB talent. Those two things determined the future blueprint of the team - complete ground-up rebuilding.

Now that the futility record is in Pittsburgh's trophy case, what's the diff if the Pirates win now or a couple of years along the road? The pressure's off; the constant drumbeat stilled.

Hey, admit it - everyone can live with Ryan Doumit, Matt Capps, Zach Duke, and Paul Maholm on the block now without yelling about a conspiracy theory. The fans have bought into the Pirate prospectus, or at least are accepting its inevitability.

First, they addressed the pitching. Goodbye, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, John Van Benschoten and Bryan Bullington. Hello, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, Kevin Hart, and Dan McCutchen, with Donnie Veal, Tim Alderson, Brad Lincoln, Jeff Karstens and Jose Ascanio waiting in the wings.

The minors? Well, that takes time. They embarked on signing as many high school kids as they could to infuse the lower levels, guys like Jarek Cunningham, Robbie Grossman, Quinton Miller, Wes Freeman, Chris Aure, Brooks Pounders, Zach Dodson, Zach Von Rosenberg, Billy Cain, and Trent Stevenson. For a team accused of being tight-fisted, this was a costly make-over, but one that was sorely needed.

They're not ready now, and may never be, but West Virginia and Bradenton finally have real prospects instead of too-old college kids filling their rosters. The ones that survive the process will show up in PNC in the next two or three seasons.

The trades made sure that there was mid-level talent to put in the organization, guys like Nate Adcock, Brett Lorin, Hunter Strickland, Aaron Pribanic and Josh Harrison. None may have much upside, but they'll contribute to decent depth and competition in the system, and could become fringe pros.

The upper levels are a different animal. Take away Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Steve Pearce, and there wasn't much to write home about in Altoona and Indy. So they traded, took a shot at Rule 5 help, and scoured the waiver wires.

Altoona will reap some benefit, with draft picks Pedro Alvarez, Tony Sanchez, Chase d'Arnaud and Jordy Mercer all expected to make appearances there this season. Bryan Morris and Jeffrey Locke should be wearing Curve uniforms sometime in 2010, too.

Indy is a tougher nut to crack, because so many young guys were thrown into the show.

Except for Jose Tabata, Gorkys Hernandez and maybe Jeff Clement, all the hot shots are already wearing Pirate uniforms. The pitching potential has improved dramatically, but the position players are still a year or two away from suiting up for the Tribe.

At any rate, the Bucco farm has gone from the poster child of ineptitude to at least middle-of-the-pack, maybe even touching the upper half.

But the proof is in the pudding, and the final course is the major league product. And there sure ain't been much to brag about there. But that could change.

The outfield is closest to being a finished product. McCutchen is set in center for as long as Bob Nutting will pay him, and there's some heated competition for the corners.

Lastings Milledge has a foot up on the rest of the field, and Jose Tabata is a year away, maybe two, with Hernandez right behind him. We like Rule 5 pick John Raynor; Brandon Moss better rediscover his A game if he wants to hold him off. And Starling Marte is a fast-riser in the minors.

The pitching is in transition. There's a ton of potential; whether it translates into performance is the million dollar question. Duke and Maholm are proven inning eaters. That makes them valuable to Pittsburgh, and also to the rest of league.

We don't think they can afford to lose them both. Ohlendorf and Morton look ready to take regular turns on the mound, and after that are some upside arms without a track record. The bullpen appears OK, even without Jesse Chavez and maybe Capps.

Meek and Joel Hanrahan should be able to handle the late innings, Steve Jackson did enough to hold the bridge spot, and a sixth starter will probably become the long man. They need to find three middle inning guys, and that can be done without busting the wallet wide open.

Catching is problematic. They're set with Doumit and Jason Jaramillo, but if Doumit's dealt, then they're looking at a veteran bargain store pick-up to share time with Jaramillo, who hits lefties like they're all Sandy Koufax clones.

The infield, to us, is set with Andy LaRoche - Ronny Cedeno/Bobby Crosby - Akinori Iwamura - Garrett Jones, and that's not a bad set of gloves. But the bats? Oy! And we're not buying into the Jeff Clement scenario; Clement at first and Jones in right is an error waiting to happen.

What we like so far about this year's player movement is that we can finally see where it's going. They had a hole at second; they filled it. They needed an option at short; they got one. (BTW, Cedeno settled his arbitration by signing for a year at $1.125M).

Neither position has anyone near ready to challenge from within the system, so there's no block, and the trio of Cedeno, Crosby, and Iwamura are all on one year deals. Perform, and the Bucs might tie you up for a couple of seasons or you'll get a better nibble on the market. Fizzle, and the team cuts its losses.

Our take on the signings is that the better of the Cedeno-Crosby pair stays, and Iwamura is a one-year guy or a July trade, especially if LaRoche can handle second after Alvarez arrives.

The light at the end of the tunnel looks a little less like a train than before, but it's still too far down the tracks to be certain. It sure would be nice if the light was Pedro carrying a torch, leading a pack of young, hungry Buccos to Pittsburgh instead of a Chessie locomotive


WilliamJPellas said...

Really enjoyed this article, Ron, and I'm with you re: Clement. Like you, I'm skeptical that he can handle first base with his glove, though if he can, I'm willing to take a look for a couple hundred at bats. If only because he was once a first round draft pick, and if only because we have half a season to play with before Pedro arrives, I'm just mildly curious enough about Clement to want to see more.

Agreed that the winner of Crosby - Cedeno might end up staying here at least another year; I don't see any of our minor league middle infielders being ready to contribute in Pittsburgh until 2011 or 2012. Agreed, too, that Andy LaRoche is probably headed for second base, though whether he can handle that position defensively remains to be seen. It also remains to be seen if Pedro won't eat himself off of third. If that happens, maybe Andy stays at third until Walker can challenge him (if he can).

As for the pitching, I think either Maholm or Duke will be traded before the season starts. Toronto is desperate for catching; I'd be willing to bet that a Duke-Doumit or Maholm-Doumit trade could net us a handsome return. I wouldn't trade both of them, no way. But I'd definitely deal one of them, preferably Duke.

Ron Ieraci said...

I'd like to see Clement catch, to be honest with you, Will, unless he's a complete disaster behind the dish.

And from the early reports, Pedro has been taking care of himself, and looks to stay at third for the time being.

LaRoche is tough to call; he handles a reflex position pretty well, but I'm with you in that a range position might be beyond his capabilities.

And yah, I think one of our lefties is gone. A package deal would maximize the return, no question.

WilliamJPellas said...

Clement's bat would definitely play better as a catcher, but his bum wheel means he's a first baseman (sort of) until further notice. Clement himself, according to an article I recently read someplace, would rather return to catching, but Neil Huntington reportedly has told him to forget about that until further notice. He looks to me like a man without a position, but he's a lefthanded hitter who has shown good---not great---but good power in the minors. So, he'll get some opportunity here.

Ron Ieraci said...

Yah, a lefty bopper always is tempting at PNC, Will. The suits have several directions they can take when making up this year's bench; it'll be interesting to see what way they go.