Jim & Bob's Palatial Baseball Blog

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Pittsburgh Pirates 2008 Preview: My GM, He Wrote Me A Letter

2007...the year that sucked/was groovy (pick one)

There's no way to sugarcoat this. The Pirates of 2007 were a crappy ballclub, a continuation of an unbroken trend dating back to the day in 1992 that Pirates management decided that 27 year old Barry Bonds was going to be too rich for their blood and that it would be more prudent to give long term contract security to Andy Van Slyke instead. Since then the Pirates have never won more than 79 games in a season and have lost 90 or more six times. This might be hard for the younger whippersnappers amongst our readership to realize, but the Pirates used to be one of the best franchises in the National League, winning two World Series titles during my lifetime and being a contending team most of the time between 1960 and 1992. In 2007 things may have finally begun to turn around. This wasn't apparent on the field, where the Pirates continued to be mostly dismal. But new management took over, replacing former chief owner Kevin McClatchey, GM Dave Littlefield, and manager Jim Tracy with new chairman Robert Nutting, president Frank Coonelly, GM Neal Huntington, and manager John Russell, who takes over this spring. If you have some concerns that this group isn't serious about returning this organization to sanity, read this. That's a remarkable letter; it takes a lot of sack for a GM to publicly admit to the fan base that yes, your team was run by a pack of idiots for 15 years and has become a laughingstock that made every mistake imaginable. If Huntington has the organization management skills to match his honesty, the Pirates will be back to being one of the game's premier franchises by the 2010's.

They can put it on the board, yes! no! maybe!

The 2007 Pirates weren't too adept at scoring runs. Their home park slightly favored pitchers, but the Pirates were actually worse in scoring on the road. Knee injuries that greatly diminished Jason Bay's season and a horrible start by new first baseman Adam LaRoche dragged the offense down, as did the season long lack of a true leadoff hitter. Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, and Xavier Nady were solid if unspectacular contributors, and Nyjer Morgan and Steven Pearce came up in September and showed some promise.

CF Nyjer Morgan
SS Jack Wilson
2B Freddy Sanchez
1B Adam LaRoche
LF Jason Bay
RF Xavier Nady
3B Jose Bautista
C Ronny Paulino

Well, this is a bit better, although still not the lineup of a .500 ballclub. Bay should be healthier and better this year, and LaRoche should build on his fine 2007 second half. The problem for the Pirates moving forward is that most of their best hitters (Bay, Sanchez, LaRoche, even the rookie Morgan) were late bloomers and are already pushing 30. By the time management is able to put a contender on the field all of them will be long gone. This is a concept that Pirates fan (and they do still exist) is going to have to understand, even if it's painful. Bay, Wilson, LaRoche, Sanchez, and Nady all have more value to the franchise for what prospects they could bring in than in their performance on the field.

Pitchers, or belly itchers?

The Pirates finished 14th in the NL in runs allowed. In road games they allowed 5.63 runs per game, worst in the league. However, the core of the staff is young and very promising and the on field turnaround of the franchise began here.

SP Ian Snell
SP Tom Gorzelanny
SP Paul Maholm
SP Zach Duke
SP Matt Morris

Here is the current strength of the franchise. Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny are a fine young tandem at the top of the order. Zach Duke has been messed up over the past couple of years but is still young enough and healthy enough to regain the form that made him so impressive in 2005. Maholm isn't in the class of the others but can at least be league average, which has value. Capps is very effective as a closer and is only 24. Even Morris should get the credit for one thing: it was the insane trade for him and his entire contract which finally brought upper management to the end of their patience with Littlefield. A month after the trade the Pirates told Littlefield goodbye and good luck. They may not have said good luck.

Witnesses for the defense

The 2007 Pirates made few errors. Well, fielding errors, anyway, they made plenty of mistakes. However, only the Marlins were worse at making outs out of batted balls. With most of the lineup returning intact it's difficult to see any change in this area in 2008.

Farm aid

Among the many deficiencies of the Littlefield administration was its handling of the draft and the farm system. Let's recap their first round picks since 2000:

2000: 19th pick overall, Sean Burnett. Burnett made an impressive debut but has had arm problems due in part to poor handling and is just hanging on the 40 man roster. Taken after Burnett in round one: Boof Bonser, Adam Wainwright, Aaron Heilman, Dustin McGowan, Kelly Johnson.

2001: 8th pick overall, John Van Benschoten. One of the top college sluggers in his class, the Pirates decided his future was on the mound. Several surgeries later he has a 1-10 record with an 8.78 ERA for his major league career. Taken after him: Casey Kotchman, Aaron Heilman, Bobby Crosby, Jeremy Bonderman, Noah Lowry, and some guy named David Wright.

2002: #1 overall, Brian Bullington. Littlefield overrode the judgement of his scouting director who wanted to pick B.J. Upton and chose this Ball State righthander. Bullington developed slowly, had shoulder surgery which cost him all of 2006, and will never be more than a back of the rotation starter, if that. Taken after him: Upton, Adam Loewen, Zach Grienke, Prince Fielder, Jeff Francis, Jeremy Hermida, Kahlil Greene, Scott Kazmir, Nick Swisher, Cole Hamels, James Loney, Jeremy Guthrie, Jeff Francouer, Joe Blanton, Matt Cain, Mark Teahen. This is one of the greatest classes in draft history; the Pirates got to go first and decided to play the part of Charlie Brown.

2003: #8 overall, Paul Maholm. At least they got something this time, even if Maholm isn't anything special. Taken after him: Lastings Milledge, Aaron Hill, Conor Jackson, Chad Cordero, Chad Billingsley, Deric Barton, Carlos Quentin, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, Adam Jones.

2004: #11 overall, Neil Walker. Walker is still a fair prospect, although moving from catcher to third base reduces his possible future value. Still, he'll probably replace Bautista by late this year or early next year. Taken after him: Jered Weaver, Billy Butler, Steven Drew, Josh Fields, Phillip Hughes, Huston Street.

2005: #11 overall, Andrew McCutchen. Finally, a prize! McCutchen is far and away the best prospect in the system; he held his own after being overpromoted to double A and then triple A at age 20 in 2007. He's got Andruw Jones like abilities. Taken after him: Jay Bruce, Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Garza, Travis Buck, Clay Buchholz. McCutchen is as good as any in the group.

2006: #4 overall, Brad Lincoln, RH pitcher. A good pick but the Pirates suffered bad luck here as Lincoln blew out his elbow. We'll see what his recovery is like. Taken after him: Andrew Miller, Tim Lincecum, Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Clayton Kershaw, Travis Snyder.

2007: #4 overall, Daniel Moskos. A lefty reliever with a good fastball, Moskos could turn into a Billy Wagner type. Or not. Moskos was thought to have been chosen in this spot because of what the Pirates could pay him, rather then on his talent. Chosen with the next three picks after him: Matt Wieters, Ross Detwiler, Matt Laporta, all of whom have a higher ceiling.

Due to all of this, the Pirates are just now starting the system wide rebuilding that should have begun about ten years ago. McCutchen projects with real star potential; the best homegrown player the Pirates have come up with since Aramis Ramirez ten years ago. Walker and Pearce should at least turn into above average players if not actual stars. So can Moskos and outfielder Jamie Romak, who should be ready by 2009. Lincoln is now a project rather than an immediate help. The rest of the system is pretty empty.

Watch out for that tree!

A team of this type shouldn't have a long entry in this category. To the credit of the Pirates, they don't. The trade for Morris is one of the worst ever; when I first heard about it I seriously thought that the person who told me was kidding me. Morris is 33 and has pretty much lost his fastball. I'm pretty confident that Neal Huntington already knows this and is trying to take appropriate action.

I can make a hat, or a broach...

The bad news is that this team isn't going to win anything this year, and won't win anything next year, either. The good news is that the Pirates finally seem to have a management team that recognizes and understands all of the failure and incompetence of the previous 15 years and is determined to do something about it. Honestly, after reading Huntington's open letter, as well as this one and this one, I'm rooting for this franchise. For 2008, the Pirates will likely be mediocre, instead of really, really bad. We shall see what the future brings.

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