Monday, June 14, 2010

The Future Approaches

Hey, it doesn't take a baseball lifer to see that 2010 was the year the Pirates would finally transition from a never-ending cattle call into the core of the team the suits have long envisioned.

All the guys we've seen with their foot in the door - Andrew McCutchen, Steve Pearce, Neil Walker, Brad Lincoln, Jose Tabata, and yes, soon Pedro Alvarez, are finally getting their chance.

Oh, it won't make for any better baseball in the short run; too many guys learning their craft at once makes for a rough genesis. But for once, the swirling mist is forming into something solid that we can all see. By 2011, the starting lineup should be consistent, and by 2012, they could lose their baby teeth and bare their fangs.

A guarantee? No way; look at all the "can't-miss" flops Pittsburgh has pegged its hopes on that did miss; remember Brandon Moss? But the lineup's drawn-from-a-hat days should be over.

For one thing, the batting order should be settled. Tabata leading off, Walker next (and right now, Walker is the two-hole guy and should be, given the make-up of the team, but ideally he'd be in a better RBI spot), McCutchen third, Garrett Jones and Alvarez in the middle, Dewey sixth, Pearce seventh, and Cedeno ahead of the pitcher sounds like a fairly stable and sustainable order.

We think Jeff Clement will be back, and can see him and Pearce platooning at first. Otherwise, the team should have an everyday lineup, based on the big if that the puppies perform as predicted.

Being able to pull guys like Lasting Milledge and Andy LaRoche off the bench (and why they haven't been drilling him as a utility infielder all year with Pedro looming large is one of the team's great management mysteries) is a big plus, and should help mitigate the inevitable growing pains that will surely come.

The fielding behind the pitch-to-contact staff should improve, too, both physically and mentally. Tabata and McCutch can cover some acreage in the pasture, allowing Gary Varsho to plot even more exotic shifts, while Walker and Pearce are infield ball-snagging machines. And given time to play together as a unit, the invisible game of positioning, cutoffs and communication can only get better.

There are holes to be filled for sure; right handed power, an everyday banger at first and a steadier shortstop than the competent but streaky Cedeno top the list, and there's no one on the farm to fill those job descriptions, at least in the near term.

They could and should be looking to move Ryan Doumit, too. His bat doesn't play well enough to make up for his glove and his health is always a question. They may take their chances with Jason Jaramillo and Eric Kratz or a free agent during the 2011 campaign with the hope that Tony Sanchez becomes a fast-tracker.

They may also have to do some shifting if Pedro does move to first sooner rather than later, but that's a question that will be answered down the line rather than now.

The next wave of baby Bucs isn't ready for prime time; Sanchez, Starling Marte, and Jarek Cunningham lead what's left of the position up-and-comers, and of the top dozen prospects in the system according to The Scouting Book, five are in or near Pittsburgh and two were just taken in the 2010 draft.

The fly in the ointment will be the pitching. The Pirate staff is populated by #3 and lower starters; there is no ace here and none on the horizon. Lincoln's upper limit seems to be as a #2 guy, and he probably fits more comfortably in the three hole.

Still, three guys like Lincoln, Ross Ohlendorf, and Paul Maholm can eat innings and keep games competitive when they're on; good glovework and some crooked numbers on the scoreboard should make the staff better even without attrition.

They may have to look outside for that top gun. Kevin Hart and Donnie Veal both went under the knife, and Charlie Morton is...well, who knows? Bryan Morris, Tim Alderson and Rudy Owens are starting to bubble to the top, but the trio don't offer any immediate help; youngster Zack Von Rosenberg holds promise, too.

Top pick Jameson Taillon has an outside shot of joining that list, but that's a lot to expect from an 18 year-old who in all likelihood will join the system too late to pitch in 2010. And we do expect him to sign; there's a lot of risk involved in going to college for a couple of seasons, and not much upside. After all, he can't improve his draft position by more than one position no matter how well he pitches.

The last two draft classes have been loaded with young arms, but they're seasons away if they do make it. Maybe by 2012-13 the organization will have some internal solutions, but that's not a sure thing at this point.

But hey, the gray clouds are beginning to break up. And it's been a long time since Pittsburgh has let the sunshine in. As the old chestnut goes, it's darkest right before dawn. The future is beginning to dawn over Pittsburgh.


WilliamJPellas said...

Agreed that Doumit needs to go. I honestly believe that the team would be better with a Jaramillo and Kratz platoon for the next year to year and a half, ie, until Sanchez gets here. What we'd lose on offense would be more than offset by what we'd gain in defense and handling the pitching staff.

However, while we do have some talent hitting the bigs right now, and while that definitely beats the alternative, there's not many of that number who project as "impact" players. Pearce has a good glove and might be useful as a platoon-bench type but has yet to hit in the bigs, the jury's still out on Walker (though the early returns are certainly good), I love Lincoln but it remains to be seen if he lost too much stuff from his arm surgery, Tabata looks good but is not a power hitter, and so on and so on.

Ron Ieraci said...

True enough, Will. The production holes they need to fill are for a first-baseman/corner OF that can reach the seats and right-handed power along with a legit two hitter so Walker can slide down in the order.