Friday, April 23, 2010

An Early Report Card

Right now, the Pirates aren't all about winning and losing (and a good thing, too). The players are auditioning for future spots, plain and simple.

Take away Andrew McCutchen, and no one currently on the squad is guaranteed to be starting two years from now. And early on in the season, a couple of guys are trying to take advantage of the situation.

Lastings Milledge has shed his immaturity label, and is starting to show flashes of what he can do given the opportunity. He's become a fairly dependable fielder with an accurate arm and a greatly improved baserunner; the question is whether his bat can play in the outfield.

He's shown a little gap power, but so far this year he's been hitting a lot of ground balls and not drawing many walks. His on-base percentage is under .300 and his OPS is barely over .600.

Milledge has shown bursts of talent, generally hits the ball hard, and provides the team with a Nymo-like jolt of energy. But how he swings the stick during the long grind of the summer will determine his place on the team down the road.

Ronny Cedeno, who GW admittedly boo-hooed during the spring, came on towards the end of camp and is continuing to play above expectations (ours, anyway). He's batting about what his ZiPS projections predict, and that's fine for a eight/nine hitter. His bigger concern, his glove, has become an asset.

He's ranked second among shortstops now, behind Stephen Drew, with a UZR of 1.6 and an UZR/150 of 23.5; his lifetime averages in those categories are -3.8 and -2.2. So Jack Wilson he ain't, but as a placeholder for the Brian Friday, Jordy Mercer, or Chase d'Arnaud era, he seems OK so far.

Garrett Jones, despite his .220 average, is showing greatly improved discipline - he's walked 14 times and struck out 8, and that's while being fed a steady diet of curves and change-ups - and has a .385 OBP, which is good even for a leadoff hitter.

It does show respect from the opposing pitchers. But now that he's beginning to recognize pitches, the trick is to do something with them. The Pirates badly need him to provide some muscle instead of being nibbled at and pitched around.

Last year's assault on the ball was unsustainable, and he still has trouble with lefties. He's hitting .231 against them this year, and would seem to be the ideal platoon candidate at first with Steve Pearce, if he ever escapes Indy.

Yah, yah, we know Jones is barely hitting above the Mendoza line against righties this campaign, but he's a lifetime .299 hitter against them.

The rest? Well, the bench guys are doing OK, although Delwyn Young's .233 average suggests he's being overused. Jeff Clement? Probably rushed to the big team, although he looks like his bat is coming around.

Aki Iwamura? He does have a pedigree, but so far he isn't hitting or fielding; it may well be that his knee is in worse shape than the suits have let on. Ryan Doumit and Andy LaRoche? Both are hitting .222.

The fact is that the Pirates have put together an at least viable start to the order, but no middle of the lineup presence. And except for Pedro Alvarez, there are no big boppers on the horizon; somebody now on the roster has step up.

We won't even get into the pitching, except to say the starters are too young as a group. GW agrees with Will Pellas that Joe Kerrigan and Ray Searage have to get the groups' act together or have their feet held to the fire, like Jeff Andrews' were.

One bright spot - judging by the play of Cedeno and Clement in the field, Carlos Garcia has proven to be a capable replacement for the virtually sainted Perry Hill.

Hey, there's 90% of the season yet to go, and that's a lot of time and games for the guys to get untracked. But if this current group of players want to be part of the Bucco future, both they and management better pick up the pace, or risk another meltdown like the final ten weeks of 2009 and yes, yet another roster shakeout.

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