Sunday, October 14, 2012

Pellas on the Pirates: Sobering Realities

Much ink, both real and virtual, has already been spilled by many people in various corners of the media regarding the Pirates' alternately thrilling and exasperating 2012 season. Rather than continue to analyze the factors---and they are many---that led to the worst collapse in major league history by any team that was as far over .500 as the Pirates were at one time during the season, I've decided to take a closer look at some of the sobering realities the team and the organization will face going forward.

Cold Bucket Of Water To The Face #1: Your 2012 Pirates were the beneficiaries of not one, but TWO 100-loss teams in the same division. Think about that for a moment. The Cubs and the DisAstros both lost 100 games last season. Since major league baseball went to the current six division-plus-wildcard playoff format, what Chicago and Houston "achieved" has only happened one other time: in 2002, when the Tigers and Royals both hit the century mark in L's.

In spite of such generosity from two of its arch-foes, the Pirates still managed just 79 victories. The Astros are about to depart for the American League, and the Cubs don't figure to be woebegone for very much longer. If Pittsburgh couldn't manage to contend or at least break .500 in a season in which two division foes went over the century mark in losses, how in the world are they going to contend going forward?

Cold Bucket Of Water To The Face #2: The starting rotation looks surprisingly bad or at least unsettled heading into 2013. Given how well the rotation performed over the first two thirds of 2012, this state of affairs is all the more alarming. Right now, only two spots are locked up. Fortunately one of them is number one starter A. J. Burnett, who showed he had plenty of gas left in his tank with a sterling first year in black and gold, and the other is number two starter Wandy Rodriguez. Both are better than average veterans who will definitely anchor the starting five next season as long as they don't break down, but the cupboard is surprisingly bare behind them.

James McDonald's career is at the crossroads. If the Pirates had some indication that they were getting the first half of 2012 edition of McDonald going forward, then the top 3 starters would be no worse than second in the division, behind only the Reds. But McDonald was so horrid after the All Star break that he was banished to the bullpen. He barely played at all over the last month of the season. Both he and team management swear he wasn't hurt; if it's a case of a fragile psyche then things could go either way. In any case he is definitely in the doghouse 'til further notice.

Charlie Morton will presumably be back at some point next year after going under the knife for Tommy John surgery, but recovery from that operation often takes more than a year, and Morton was no sure thing even before he got hurt. Erik Bedard, who did quite well for the first two months of 2012 before failing so badly that the Pirates simply cut him, must be replaced; ditto for underrated veteran Kevin Correia, who will almost certainly leave as a free agent. Top pick Gerrit Cole should be up from the minors for the second half of 2013, but fellow first rounder Jameson Taillon is probably still a year or two away.

That leaves a handful of pitchers who have nothing left to prove in the minor leagues but whose major league experience to date is either limited, or underwhelming, or both: Kyle McPherson, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson. The only other potential reinforcement on hand at the moment is veteran Jeff Karstens, and while he figures to return via the arbitration process, he has never managed to get through an entire major league season without missing significant time due to injury.

Cold Bucket Of Water To The Face #3: This team still can't steal bases or otherwise manufacture runs with small ball to save its life. As good a fine young veteran player as Andrew McCutchen is, and as great a season as he just had, the truth is that he would be even better if he could just translate his outstanding footspeed into successful basestealing. But for whatever reason or reasons, McCutchen simply is not very good at swiping bags. In fact, he's getting worse at it as his career heads toward its peak, not better.

Beyond him, Alex Presley can run a little but is more of a pick-your-spots guy than a true threat, and Jose Tabata has lost it due to his ongoing and never-ending series of leg injuries. Starling Marte, fresh off a fitfully effective rookie half season, can definitely run, but in spite of his obvious and impressive physical talent, he is still very raw and far from a finished product; a return to Triple A for more seasoning is not out of the question for him.

None of this would matter much if the Pirates were the kind of heavy-hitting, American League style of team that General Manager Neal Huntington seems intent on building, except that the Pirates, as currently constructed, resemble nothing so much as they resemble a pale facsimile of that sort of club. In other words, they look like the Cleveland Indians, which is fitting since that's where Huntington was working before he was hired by the Pirates.

Cold Bucket Of Water To The Face #4: All of which leaves plain ol' hitting and home runs as the only way this team, as currently built, can score. To be sure, the Pirates do have some hitting, and they do have some power. Just not enough. And if Neil Walker's late season back injury becomes chronic, or if the holes in Pedro Alvarez' swing continue to result in prolonged slumps of mammoth proportions, or if Travis Snider continues to spend more time setting world records for steak consumption and less time on his conditioning, the offensive shortfall could go from noticeable to overwhelming.

Cold Bucket of Water To The Face #5: And of course, neither the team's catchers nor its pitchers did much of anything to slow down enemy basestealers. This became a major problem as the 2012 season wore on, and it will continue to be a major weakness going forward until and unless it is addressed.

The bottom line is that while the Pirates did manage to tie their, uh, "record" for most wins (79) in any season during the current, 20 year run of losing, continued improvement is no sure thing, and significant regression is possible---if not probable---unless management takes action this offseason to address the team's considerable weaknesses. A lot can happen between now and the opening of spring training in February 2013, and a lot must happen if the Pirates are to continue their climb back to respectability and, ultimately, to true contender status.

(Will Pellas is a regular contributor to the blog, and today points out that if the Bucs stand pat, all will not be kumbaya come next season)

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