Friday, January 14, 2011

3 Questions: Pittsburgh Pirates

By The Common Man

In an evil way, The Common Man kind of digs looking at these teams (like the Astros and Diamondbacks) who are poised to be bad. It certainly makes TCM feel better about the Twins. But there is little joy in looking at the Pirates, who have not had a winning season since 1992 and had their worst squad since 1952 on the field last year. As TCM used to work for the Pirates in a roundabout fashion, he still feels a small connection to the Buccos, and watching them flopping about the National League like a fish out of water and trying to hold a baseball bat is a bit painful. But given that he’s committed to do the whole of the National League in this 3 Questions series, here are the biggest questions facing the Pirates. As always, you can read our previous 3 Questions entries here.

Question 1: Have they hit bottom yet?

How do you know if you’ve hit rock bottom? TCM would have figured that the Bucs had hit bottom in 2009, when they traded long-time starters Freddie Sanchez and Jack Wilson (after trading Jason Bay the previous summer), along with Nyjer Morgan and Nate McLouth. Sure the team was going to play badly, but they picked up good young prospects in the deals and a fresh start would probably help the roster a little. But then, like Lindsey Lohan, they continued to stumble and fall further from relevancy.

Despite playing in a neutral park, the pitchers sported a 5.00 ERA and allowed a full run/game more than the league average. Likewise, the team featured the worst offense in the National League, scoring just 3.62 runs/game thanks, in large part, to a .304 team OBP. They lost 105 games and based on the runs they scored and those they allowed, they should have lost 109. Is any of this likely to improve in 2011? Frankly, it’s hard to see how it could get worse?

Question 2: Where are they better?

Ryan Doumit is going to give way to Chris Snyder full time, which is a step back offensively, but a defensive upgrade. If Snyder’s healthy, he’ll probably be an improvement. Former catcher Neil Walker is going to get in a full season at 2B, as is Pedro Alvarez at 3B, meaning that massive disappointments Andy LaRoche and Delwyn Young won’t be dragging down the rest of the offense. Jose Tabata had an underappreciated rookie campaign and sounds ready to build on that over a full campaign, and Andrew McCutchen remains one of the best young players in the league. Lyle Overbay has put up acceptable offensive numbers in the AL East, and may thrive in a move to the NL Central and to PNC Park, though his arrival moves Garrett Jones to RF, where the Bucs will take a defensive hit.

The pitching will be improved simply because of some subtraction. Zach Duke is out, and James McDonald is in for a full season. Charlie Morton simply can’t pitch any worse than he did. And the team’s signings of Scott Olsen, Kevin Correia, Wil Ledezma, and Brian Burres certainly can’t hurt. But the team’s nemesis has been its defense and it’s hard to see that they’ve improved that. Garrett Jones is huge defensive drop in RF. Alvarez is a defensive disaster that will have to be moved to 1B soon. Every defensive metric absolutely hates Neil Walker and Ronny Cedeno (despite his reputation as a glove man) up the middle. Even McCutchen, with his great speed, gets poor marks in CF. Last year, according to xFIP, the defense cost the Pirates about half a run on top of the pitchers’ ERA. It could be even worse in 2011, given the expanded roles for Walker and Alvarez. So, from a run-prevention standpoint, at least, there isn’t a lot of room for improvement in 2011.

Question 3: But are they at least on the right track?

You know, for as bad as they’re likely to be again (probably 95 losses), they still seem to be moving in the right direction. They are not over-committing to veteran mediocrities, instead bringing in Overbay on a one-year deal to plug a hole. They are letting the prospects play, giving them plenty of opportunity to develop (with the exception of Lastings Milledge, but every team seems to give up on him so there’s probably a good reason). Their handling of Ryan Doumit has been strange, to say the least, but he could still end up being useful to the Pirates or another team, if they can build up his value enough to trade him. And they’re dealing productive veterans for additional young players. They’ve got a lot of good young pitchers on the farm, and a nice young catcher in Tony Sanchez coming up.

This is a team that, like the Royals, has a chance to be frisky in 2012 and might break .500 in 2013. That’s hard to say to Pirates right now, given Pittsburgh’s historic run of futility, but TCM is hopeful that the Pirates are on the verge of turning things around. Maybe he still has that luxury, though, because he can watch from a distance. Sorry, Pirates fans.  For what it's worth, you still have the best damn logo in the league.

No comments: