FanHouse continues its 2009 MLB Preview with a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates.
For the better part of the last decade, the Pittsburgh Pirates aimlessly wandered through the wilderness of baseball with Kevin McClatchy and Dave Littlefield at the helm. Finally, they lost their jobs and Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington took over. For more than a year, the new front office has been working on digging out of the hole dug by Littlefield during his reign of terror. There's only one real problem: The hole dug by Littlefield was so deep that it's going to take more than a year to dig out of it.
That leaves the Pirates in a sort of baseball purgatory right now. The front office is pouring most of the team's limited resources into rebuilding the franchise from the bottom up, but the major league team is stuck languishing until the minors are sufficiently rebuilt to provide the club with talent. It's easy for a fan to say, "I wish we'd just give up on this season and focus on rebuilding, " but it is much harder when that plan is actually being executed.
In: Eric Hinske, IF/OF (free agency); Ramon Vasquez, IF (free agency); Andy Phillips, 1B (free agency); Virgil Vazquez, SP (free agency)
Out: Jason Michaels, OF (free agency); Doug Mientkiewicz, 1B (free agency); Luis Rivas, IF (free agency); Chris Gomez, IF (free agency)
The Green Mile ...
In the great history of Major League Baseball, there are only two franchises that have managed to roll together 16 straight losing seasons -- the hilariously-awful Phillies, who were so bad between 1933 and 1948 that they briefly changed their name to the Blue Jays in an attempt to distance themselves from the "Phillies" moniker that had become synonymous with losing. The other franchise? The Pittsburgh Pirates, who haven't had a winning season since 1992.
The skid those Phillies had was undoubtedly worse; they actually only had one winning season between 1918 and 1948 and between '33 and '48 they lost 100 games or more seven times. The Pirates have actually had good teams at least vaguely within the memory banks of their fans over the age of about 24 and they only lost 100 games once during this span (in 2001). Still, a record is a record and barring a miracle, the Pirates are on the brink of breaking the record of those Phillies teams with their 17th straight losing season this year. That's depressing.
O Brother, Where Art Thou? ...
At the trade deadline last year, the Pirates doubled their number of LaRoche brothers, adding Andy LaRoche from Los Angeles to go with first baseman Adam LaRoche. If there's a more frustrating brother/brother combination in baseball, I've yet to encounter them. Adam is a pretty decent hitting first baseman with a nice glove, but he doesn't hit before May 1. Last year he hit .291/.358/.554 after April 30, which is actually some pretty good production from a first baseman. In April, though, he hit .174/.260/.244 and that made his final line on the season .270/.341/.500, which is really only average.
On the other hand, his brother struggled about as badly as anyone I can ever remember watching after being traded to the Pirates at the trade deadline. In 49 games with the Pirates, he went .152/.227/.232 with just three home runs and four doubles. For a guy that has a career OPS of almost .900 in the minor leagues, it was jarring to watch, especially because he was the centerpiece of the Jason Bay trade.
With Bay and Xavier Nady gone, the Pirates need good seasons from both brothers to avoid being one of the worst offensive teams in baseball. Andy is hitting well in the Grapefruit League and while I'd normally tell you that's meaningless, I'm much slower to write it off because I don't think he could've hit a pitching machine at the end of last summer. Adam, meanwhile, is probably playing for a ticket out of town since he's a free agent at the end of the year, and it seems unlikely the Pirates will trade him. That did wonders for Nady and Bay last year, but is anything in the world motivation enough to get him to hit during April?
I Have to Admit It's Getting Better, It's Getting Better All the Time (It Can't Get Much Worse) ...
Before 2008 started, most people expected the Pirates' young pitching staff to be the team's strength. They gave up 884 runs behind huge regressions from Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell and a black hole in the rotation created by Matt Morris, John Van Benschoten, and Yoslan Herrera.
This year, Joe Kerrigan is in town as the new pitching coach, and it's his job to figure out what's gone wrong with Snell and Zach Duke. Helping his cause is the depth added to the staff by Huntington when he acquired Jeff Karstens, Ross Ohlendorf, and Daniel McCutchen from the Yankees in the Xavier Nady deal. That allowed the Pirates to demote Gorzelanny to Triple-A to start the season when it became clear in spring training that he hadn't fixed his troubles from last year. They could do it without fear of adding a pitcher to the rotation that will allow an earned run per inning.
Simply put, if the Pirates are going to avoid 100 losses this year, an improved pitching staff will be the reason why.
Why You Should Watch: The chic thing for sportswriters and blindly optimistic fans to do in Pittsburgh right now is compare the 2009 Pirates to the 2008 Rays. The logic is simplistic, "The Rays were bad and got good, so maybe the Pirates can do the same! Plus, we have Eric Hinske and they had Eric Hinske! The similarities are unavoidable!" This is faulty logic because it ignores all of the building the Rays did to get to the place they were in in 2008. The truth is that the Pirates are trying to get on the same road the Rays took, but they're about 10 exits away on the highway.
So watch the Pirates this year to see Andrew McCutchen make his Major League debut. Do it to see Nate McLouth and Ryan Doumit keep hitting. Keep an eye on Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Brad Lincoln, and Bryan Morris in the minors. Watch to see if the front office spends another $9 million on the draft. Do all these things and when the Pirates surprise everyone by competing for the NL Central in 2011 or 2012, you'll be able to say you saw it coming.
What Defines Success: Andy LaRoche learning how to hit, Ian Snell remembering how to pitch, and McCutchen, Alvarez, Tabata, Morris, and Lincoln all moving forward as prospects. That coupled with Huntington bringing in another good draft class and getting any kind of decent return on Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, and Jack Wilson when he trades them will mean the Pirates were successful in 2009, no matter how many games they lose. As a Pirate fan, I'd like to see them avoid 100 losses for my own sanity, but if they can't do that, they'll at least have the top pick in 2010 to show for it.
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