OK, so how does the immediate future of the club look after three months of hot stove tinkering? Well, not a heck of lot different than it did when they were losing 99 games last year.
In general, I agree, "which is both bogus and sad", to quote the great Wayne Campbell.
There is, I believe, some small room for optimism, but there's no question the offseason has been, in general, a disappointment. Especially for a team that barely avoided 100 losses. Oh, that's right, I forgot: it "doesn't matter how many games we lose 'cuz we're rebuilding".
Starting Pitching: Ross Ohlendorf, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Charlie Morton are in, pending some late wheeling-and-dealing; Dan McCutchen and Kevin Hart will go mano-a-mano for the last spot. Jose Ascanio has a shot to step in later during the year. Brad Lincoln is probably the only guy in the system with a chance to crack the rotation sometime during the season.
My grousing aside, the starting rotation might be the one spot on the roster that could significantly alter the look of the team for the better if/when a trade is consummated sometime during the 2010 season. There would seem to be a small but significant surplus of starting pitching on hand, and one would think that veteran lefthanders Zach Duke and especially Paul Maholm would be extremely desireable to many teams. Brad Lincoln will be two years removed from his Tommy John surgery, and he has little left to prove in the minors. He'll be at Indianapolis until June to avoid Super-Two arbitration status, but unless he implodes totally, he'll bring his Blyleven-esque curveball to Pittsburgh no later than the All-Star break. Daniel McCutchen would figure to have the inside track on at least the fifth starter's spot---I personally think he's better than that---but he looked at least capable in limited action late in 2009. I believe Kevin Hart is better suited for the bullpen (assuming he can handle even that much) but he's a big, strong, hard-throwing guy and maybe the lightbulb will come on for him. If nothing else he is depth that can be called upon. Therefore, a Pirates starting pitcher can---and should be---dealt in exchange for hitting, ideally a corner outfielder with at least some power. Unless a buyer's market veteran comes on board late in the offseason, which is certainly a viable option in the current economy. More on the outfield below....
Bullpen: Bye-bye, Matt Capps and Jesse Chavez. 2010's firemen look like Evan Meek, Joel Hanrahan, Javier Lopez, Steven Jackson, Chris Jakubauskas, the loser of the McCutchen-Hart mashup (although McC could end up at Indy if they want to work him as a starter), and Jose Ascanio. Hanrahan and Meek will audition for the closers' role, although closer-by-committee could well be in the cards for 2010. There's a cast of thousands waiting if a seventh spot opens up.
I'm honestly not as worried about the 'pen as I was after John Grabow was traded. At least, I'm not as worried if Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan are healthy. Javier Lopez---one of the few offseason signings to this point who could have any real impact in 2010---will do nicely as a LOOGY if he is the 2006-2008 BoSox version and not the 2009 edition who got shelled, then demoted. I'm guessing he's more the former than the latter. If we can find one more quasi-useful lefthander from among Donnie Veal and this year's spring training invitees, I believe our 'pen will be effective if not overwhelming. Our relief corps would go from effective to very strong if Octavio Dotel signs with the Pirates, as has been rumored to be in the offing.
Infield: It should be Garrett Jones, Akinori Iwamura, the winner of the Ronny Cedeno/Bobby Crosby cage match, and Andy LaRoche. What it will look like in August, if Iwamura goes and Pedro Alvarez arrives, is anybody's guess. Jeff Clements may get a shot at first, although we consider him a long shot. But the suits love him, so we'll see; he and Jones create a crowd. There's not much help in the upper levels yet; the cavalry is still a couple of seasons away from PNC.
That's not a bad starting infield, though still light on the hitting unless Crosby can somehow recapture his previous form and/or Cedeno has a career year and/or LaRoche starts looking more like he did while in the Dodgers system and less like he has for most of his major league career to date. Still, all the players GW mentioned are good or better than good with the glove, and if Jones continues his Roy Hobbs impression, ya never know.
I'd really like to see Iwamura at least be offered a contract to stay, though if LaRoche can handle second base, the best long term solution might be to move him there to make way for Alvarez. Alvarez, however, is no sure thing himself, as it remains to be seen whether he will eat himself off third base or not. In which case we have a logjam at first, unless Jones moves to right---which would figure to be Jose Tabata's position, unless---well, see below. Meanwhile I don't expect much from Pat Clement, but he was a first rounder once upon a time, and there's some thought that his mostly disappointing big league audition to this point in time can be blamed on his knee injuries. We'll see.
Catcher: Assuming they hold on to Ryan Doumit, he and Jason Jaramillo are set. But the question is: Can Doumit give them 135 games behind the plate? His history suggests not. So a position that was deep enough last year is iffy this season with Robby Diaz gone. We expect to see the Pirates pick up a veteran, good glove guy along the lines of Raul Chavez to split time with Eric Kratz at Indy. Minor league depth consists mainly of Tony Sanchez.
You could do worse than Jaramillo as a starting catcher, though he is better suited to be either a strong number two or perhaps a platoon semi-starter, but Jaramillo could be our number one sooner rather than later. It looks like the suits are determined to trade Doumit, in which case their axing of Robinzon Diaz (since inked by Detroit) is very strange, since he would have been no worse than Jaramillo's backup. What troubles me about moves like this one (if it happens) and the Iwamura acquisition is that they don't solve anything longer term; rather, they give us short-term fixes when no longer term options are on the horizon anywhere in the organization. Which means we would figure to have to go outside the organization, either in trade or free agency. Except that Pittsburgh is where free agents don't go even to die---well, not bigger name veterans, anyway---and the team does not yet have enough fungible minor leaguers who could be turned into big league veterans via trade on short notice.
Maybe the other shoe is about to drop, but ya gotta wonder.
Outfield: Start with Andrew McCutchen. End with Andrew McCutchen. Lastings Milledge will start, but has to keep improving and show some power. Who knows where Jones will end up? Rule 5 pick John Raynor will be all that Brandon Moss can handle; that should be one of the storylines of Spring Training. Jose Tabata could pop up in June, and Nyjo clone Gorkys Hernandez shouldn't be far behind. All in all, a competitive spot for Pittsburgh with a lot of possible end points.
McCutchen is the crown jewel, though I still want to see him hit like he did in 2009 over an entire season. But he's still far and away the best we've got even if he regresses with the stick. So no worries there. Milledge definitely said and did all the right things upon coming here, so maybe he's grown up a bit, but unless I'm mistaken, isn't he arbitration-eligible after 2010? In which case, why was he acquired in exchange for much-cheaper-for-far-longer Nyjer Morgan? Yet again: a short term acquisition who would seem a problematic fit, if at all, for the longer term.
However, there is more depth in the outfield than at some other spots, so Milledge might be auditioning for other teams, anyway, no matter how well he does in 2010. I really like John Raynor and believe he will beat out Brandon Moss in Bradenton. Moss might still make the team, but would surely figure to be on the next train out of town once Tabata is promoted, perhaps as soon as June though more likely in August. Tabata, another guy I really like, is not, however, a true power hitter. I am very concerned about the kind of pressure he might be facing from Pirates fandom and maybe even the front office. I believe he will be a Jose Cruz Sr type of hitter, ie, high .200s to low .300s with lots of doubles and 80-90 RBI, but probably not more than 15 HR most years. There's nothing wrong with that kind of production, but Cruz Sr was also an excellent basestealer and defensive player and Tabata is not overwhelmingly fast nor exceptional with the glove. He might be, in other words, the classic "tweener". Here's hoping he's more Cruz Sr than Melky Cabrera.
Count me as one who does not expect much, if anything, from Gorkys Hernandez. I'm looking further down in the minors at players like Robbie Grossman and Starling Marte.
Bench: Delwyn Young. Jason Jaramillo. Ronny Cedeno/Bobby Crosby loser. Brandon Moss/John Raynor winner. We think Ramon Vazquez, despite his $2M deal, is on thin ice. Steve Pearce and Neil Walker have options left, so we expect them to be at Indy. That final spot on the pine could easily be filled with a late-signee from the free agent market that can play the corners and has a little pop.
Let's hope there will be a veteran, "professional hitter" type who will be signed before we go to Bradenton, for professional and competitive integrity if nothing else. I liked Marlon Byrd a lot for this role, but he just joined the Cubs on a 3 year deal. There are still a number of attractive options out there.
Overall: Lots of questions remain. They're still a couple of years from filling the gaps with internal talent, and don't seem likely to bring in a difference maker until the dots are connected, so any dealing will be for prospects, not players.
The offense counts on Jones, Milledge, LaRoche, and Doumit producing and a shortstop that can put up at least Jack Wilson-like numbers. The pitching should be OK, but the lack of an ace stopper hurts. Capps was going sooner or later; so it's time to get the bullpen merry-go-round in gear.
The pieces are slowly starting to arrive, but not soon enough to make the 2010 club a contender.
Adding Dotel and a productive veteran hitter would make this team much better on the field at PNC while we wait for the farm system to hit full production. I remain skeptical that current ownership and management will actually step up and make intelligent investments in a few carefully-chosen homegrown and veteran free agent players, either now or in the future. Just saying "the kids will save us" is NOT enough and certainly does not, in and of itself, constitute a coherent and honest attempt at fielding a winning team in Pittsburgh. While real improvement in our minor league system was the organization's biggest need, and while that real improvement has definitely occurred, it is unlikely to produce a winner without additional reinforcements via trade and free agency.