The 2011 Pirates: Baby Steps
Among the first things new Pirate manager Clint Hurdle preached to his men at a January minicamp was some rubbish about how â€œchampionship teams make good outs.â€Â Â Really, what championship teams do is get on base, hit the ball over the fence, and prevent their opponents from doing the same.Â Pittsburghâ€™s trouble has been the quantity of outs, not the quality.
Those outs should come a little less frequently than they did in 2010.Â The Pirates are a younger and better offensive team than they were at this time last year.Â But as to how they are going to get opposing batters to make bad outs, good outs, or any other kind of outs â€“ that remains unclear.
The nucleus of the club consists of four promising hitters â€“ Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata.Â McCutchen went flat mid-season last year before rebounding to nearly duplicate his solid 2009 production.Â Alvarez was streaky and strikeout prone, as one would expect from a rookie slugger, but ended up with 16 home runs and 64 RBIs in just 95 games.
Walker, a former first round pick, had disappointed throughout his minor league career, but he finally appears to have adopted a more mature, selective approach.Â Â His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was .340 last season, which probably is not sustainable, but even if his production tails off a bit he could be the long-term answer at second base.Â Tabata, the Bucsâ€™ speedy 22-year-old left fielder, held his own as a rookie but unless he develops some power â€“ and thereâ€™s no hard evidence that he will â€“ heâ€™s looking at a future as a fourth outfielder.
Pittsburgh appears to be slightly below average at two power positions â€“ first base, where the still useful but slightly musty Lyle Overbay takes over, and right field, where Garrett Jones, coming off a disappointing sophomore season, will platoon with free agent pick-up Matt Diaz.Â Two other spots look like complete disasters.Â Ronny Cedeno, for reasons known only to God and general manager Neal Huntington, returns at shortstop, while catcher Ryan Doumit has lost his Â job to former Diamondback Chris Snyder.Â Snyder is better behind the plate, but Doumitâ€™s career OPS versus right-handers is more than 100 points higher.
In short, despite plenty of question marks, there is hope offensively.Â The pitching, on the other hand, is just dreadful.Â Â James McDonald came up from AAA and pitched sensationally at times, while Ross Ohlendorf was more effective than his 1-11 record suggests.Â So there you have two decent starters.Â Paul Maholm eats a lot of innings, but his ERA has been below league-average in four of his five seasons.Â Â And then it gets frightening â€“ Brad Lincoln, Charlie Morton, and Jeff Karstens, along with free agent signings Kevin Correia and Scott Olsen. Â Two of those guys will end up in the rotation, but it would be an upset if Hurdle got more than a handful of victories out of any of them.Â Â Lincoln, the fourth overall pick in the 2006 draft, might pan out someday, but he went 1-4 with a 6.66 ERA in nine starts last season and is a long shot to make the club this spring.
The relief corps is in similar straits.Â When the Bucs can get to the eighth inning with a lead, they should be fine.Â Set-up man Evan Meek and closer Joel Hanrahan are power arms who were dominant for long stretches last season.Â But the rest of the bullpen is up in the air, with a mess of rookies and career journeymen scrambling to claim spots.
Clearly, thereâ€™s not enough talent for the Pirates to compete this season.Â The bigger problem is that it probably wonâ€™t get significantly better for a while.Â Pittsburghâ€™s impact prospects are pitchers who are just a year or two removed from high school and still a long way away.Â Â Tony Sanchez, who might be up by 2012, projects as a solid major league catcher but probably not a star.Â Â Although Huntington has tried repeatedly to bring in young talent via trades, the results have been mostly disappointing.Â This is nothing new â€“ Pittsburghâ€™s ineptitude in player evaluation has carried over from one regime to the next, like some kind of airborne pathogen thatâ€™s been planted in the a/c unit.
By the time the big guns like right-hander Jameson Taillon establish themselves in Pittsburgh, McCutchen and Alvarez will be in their primes.Â But unless the front office veers from tradition, theyâ€™ll be enjoying those peak years in some other uniform.Â Â Smart teams with supportive ownership try to lock their best young players into long-term deals, but thatâ€™s not what Pittsburgh is doing â€“ not yet, anyway.Â Â Â To their credit, the Pirates have spent money on the draft the last few years, and they have the top overall pick in June, so perhaps soon they will finally have the consistent stream of prospects that small-budget teams need in order to compete.Â But a couple of good players coming through every five years isnâ€™t enough.
This yearâ€™s Pirates look similar to the Bucs of 2000 and 2001.Â Those clubs had a few guys who could hit, especially Brian Giles, but the pitching staffs consisted largely of failed prospects, reclamation projects, and whatever wavier wire jabronis happened to show up in the parking lot each morning.Â Not coincidentally, those teams lost with regularity.
The Pirates are improving â€“ slowly.Â The organization is no longer the top-to-bottom embarrassment that it was Huntington took over.Â But that magical winning record is at least a few years away.Â And the path that leads to the playoffs? Â Still nowhere to be found.
James Forrâ€™s book, Pie Traynor: A Baseball Biography (co-authored with David Proctor) was a finalist for the 2010 Casey Award.Â He also was the 2005 winner of the McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award.