There seems to be a certain weariness among folks these days when it comes to watching the Pirates. Whether the total demolition of the team by the current front office was the right approach or not, fans in general are sick of losing, and---more crucially to my mind---they’re sick of a team that has few if any identifiable faces.
Remember the Cubs’ “lovable losers” teams of the 70s and 80s? Why were they “lovable”, exactly, even though they never came close to contending for more than a decade? Because they had a great venue in which to watch baseball, and because they somehow always had a handful of good-to-middling ballplayers who were easy to root for even if the team as a whole was almost always bad. The Pirates, it should be noted, have half of that formula, as PNC Park is widely considered to be one of baseball’s crown jewels. The other half, obviously, is lacking.
The thing is, it wasn’t lacking as recently as last season. But a second round of bloodletting saw the last of the fan favorite veterans---most notably Jack Wilson, Nyjer Morgan and Nate McLouth---sent out of town for prospects and reclamation jobs.
McLouth, by the way, is still having problems with his hamstrings, and if he is permanently debilitated, that trade takes on a whole new dynamic. But the point is that while no one doubted most of our vets had to be turned over for kids, the fact that almost all of them were dealt left us with the worst of all possible teams: one that was both terrible on the field and that had next to no one you could root for on an individual basis.
Now of course, winning cures many if not all ills when it comes to professional sports. The Pirates, we are told repeatedly, are aiming not just for respectability but for sustained excellence. Look at the Twins, the A’s, the Rays, and the Marlins, and you see what this team could become.
Obviously it takes a consistently loaded farm system to compete when you’re a small-to-mid-market organization, and obviously it takes time to load that system up. It’s just that when you gut everything from top to bottom, there isn’t much left to root for in the meantime. Maybe that’s the price this team must pay for nearly two decades of obvious mismanagement; certainly the current front office has a plan and it’s sticking to that plan. I’m of the opinion that the surgery did not have to be as radical as it was, but the die is cast, and it’s time to play ball in 2010.
Which brings us to the coming season and what we should expect.
Unfortunately, it looks like another transition season for the Pirates. There are reasons for hope, ie, some useful veterans have been added to the kids, some impact rookies are certainly on the way, and the team doesn’t look horrible on paper---though it certainly doesn’t look good, either.
But as always it’s just so hard to say because you just never know when the roster will be blown up yet again, and to what extent. This makes it very difficult for the average fan to invest themselves, let alone their money, in this team. At some point, the rebuilding must be fundamentally over, and the team should switch from tearing down to building for a playoff run. I am confident in saying that 2010 won’t be the year in which the Pirates reach that point.
Sure, there’s a best case scenario. It goes like this: first, Garrett “The Legend” Jones continues to rake, and he becomes perhaps the greatest late-blooming big leaguer ever. There’s precedent: Mike Easler, a pretty fair hitter back in the day, was almost as old as Jones before he finally got his shot with the Pirates. Current reliever Brendan Donnelly was 30 before he had a regular job in the majors. And so on. Jones has a chance to outshine them all, and if he does, it bodes well for our fortunes in 2010 and beyond.
He’ll need help if the Pirates are to achieve respectability this season, but it’s not impossible he’ll get it. Which brings us to Ryan Doumit. No one questions Doumit’s talent. It’s just that no one knows when he’ll next land on the 60 day DL with the chicken pox, or a busted nose when a 2 year old niece or nephew accidentally punches him at a family get-together, or after he gets run over by an overzealousfan driving a shopping cart, or when he slips while singing in the shower. But if he can stay on the field for 120 games or so, Jones and Doumit hitting back to back has potential.
Lastings Milledge may not be the five tool kid he was touted to be when he first came up with the Mets, but to his credit he’s shown none of the punk behavior that doomed him in New York and Washington, and by all accounts he’s been a model professional since joining the Pirates. If he’s half as good as his press clippings said he should become, he’ll be useful and perhaps better than that.
Andy LaRoche might play out of his mind and force the front office to make some hard choices, though I think it’s more likely he’ll be traded or move to a 2B-utility role. But he had the minor league numbers and if he can translate those to the bigs, ya never know.
Meanwhile, the rotation doesn’t scare anyone, but it seems to be made of
guys who are all at least solid competitors who will go right at you. This is especially true of our 1-2-3 starters, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, and Ross Ohlendorf---though Ohlendorf’s rough spring is worrisome. Fourth starter Charlie Morton has the best stuff, and if the light bulb comes on for him, look out. Fifth starter Daniel McCutchen doesn’t throw hard but he’s as fearless and competitive as they come, and you can win a lot of games with pitchers like that.
The bullpen is made of similar stuff, with the exception of closer Octavio Dotel, who is the one man on this staff who can truly miss bats with any consistency. Again, nothing overwhelming overall, but definitely deep and definitely am improvement on last season.
The bottom line? If everything works out and nobody gets hurt for an extended period of time, a run at .500 is actually not out of the question, particularly in a mediocre National League Central division.
Unfortunately there’s also the much more likely worst-case scenario. Jones continues to hit home runs, but is so overmatched by lefthanders that he ends up losing both 30 points on his batting average and his place in the starting lineup when the team faces southpaws. Doumit gets hurt---again---and the team loses his otherwise powerful bat for extended stretches.
New second baseman Aki Iwamura’s knee doesn’t hold up, and his glove isn’t what it was in Tampa, nor his hitting. Andy LaRoche tries too hard because he knows top prospect Pedro Alvarez is breathing down his neck, and so he lands on the bench in July, then gets released in the offseason, making the Jason Bay trade even more of a disaster than it already is, if that’s possible.
Morton’s hamstrings act up again, and even when healthy he is unable to find home plate with any consistency. Ohlendorf’s spring struggles carry over into the regular season, until he’s finally banished to the ‘pen if not to Indianapolis. Top pitching prospect Brad Lincoln comes up, but his changeup is still a work in progress, and after a successful first time around the league, teams catch up to him and he is battered.
Meanwhile, one or more of the bullpen veterans springs a leak or blows a tire, and Pedro and Jose and their rookie enthusiasm aren’t enough to compensate. Fan unrest culminates in a blogosphere-inspired “Storm The Bastille Night", and GW is arrested while leading the charge. 100 losses loom…..
Nah. It won’t be that bad. But at least one more significant trade is likely, ie, Duke going to a contender (the Dodgers are said to have interest), which wouldn’t be the end of the world given his arbitration status, but which could be another mid-season disruption that sidetracks whatever team chemisty might otherwise be developing.
And of course, some moves are inevitably going to be made because of the three rookies who are knocking on the door: Alvarez, Tabata, and Lincoln. In an ideal season, they force their way onto the roster simply because they’re better than the players they are replacing, and the team on the field at PNC is noticeably improved as a result.
Any moves the front office might make at that point would become a matter of addition by subtraction (dealing the inferior players) instead of being yet another demolition job. For now, let’s hope that things go well, that more veterans are only traded because our in-house rookies have displaced them, and that the team at the end of the 2010 season will be one that not only wins more games but is easier to root for than what we see on the field as the season begins.