2010 Season Forecast: Pittsburgh Pirates

Last Five Years:
2009: 62 – 99 (6th, NL Central)
2008: 67 – 95
2007: 68 – 94
2006: 67 – 95
2005: 67 – 95

The Pirates won 79 games in 1997, which is the closest they have come to a winning season since 1992.

Runs Scored: 636 (Last, NL)
Runs Allowed: 768 (12th, NL)

Season Recap:

While we could hope that the Pirates would finally break the streak of losing seasons, most people figured that getting past 70 wins for the first time since 2004 would be an improvement…

Actually, the Pirates got out in front with decent April pitching.  After sweeping Florida and taking two from San Diego, Pittsburgh stood at 11 – 7.  Unfortunately, such heady days ended quickly as the Pirates went on to lose 14 of 17 as the offense stopped scoring any runs.  To their credit, the Pirates came back and had a winning June and on the 27th, the Pirates had gotten to within four games of .500

At this point, the Pirates sold out.  Nate McLouth was traded to Atlanta for a couple of prospects.  Nyjer Morgan went to Washington for Lastings Milledge (not sure why, either), Jack Wilson was sent to Seattle with a struggling Ian Snell.  Freddy Sanchez was packaged to San Francisco, and even former ace Tom Gorzelanny was shipped to Chicago with reliever John Grabow.

So, a team that actually was playing pretty well collapsed while testing a bunch of new guys, mixing in a variety of losing streaks between four and nine games long until they were fighting off the possibility of losing 100 games.  The Pirates lost 60 of their last 87 games.  Personally, I don’t know why the Pirates would want to ruin their season that way, but that’s just me.

Pitching:

Unlike Cincinnati, who had a few guys log a lot of innings but not one who was even SLIGHTLY above league average, the Pirates had a couple of decent arms.  Ross Ohlendorf got rolling down the stretch to win 11 games and save his team about seven extra runs in his 177 innings.  Zach Duke, usually a disappointment, logged 213 decent innings, walking just 49 guys, and edging nearly four runs better than the average guy.  Teams need Zach Dukes.  The Pirates wanted him to be an ace, which he is not, but Duke isn’t a problem.  Charlie Morton came over from Atlanta and was tolerable in his 18 starts.  Paul Maholm logged nearly 195 innings and wasn’t death.  Sometimes he looked pretty good.

What strikes you, however, in looking at the Pirates staff is the lack of a POWER arm.  Who on the staff strikes out a batter per inning?  Heck – who strikes out six per nine?  Nobody.  The closest thing the Pirates have to a live arm is Evan Meek, who had 42 Ks in 47 innings out of the pen, but his control keeps him from being a real stopper.  If you look at the guys who logged at least, say, 60 innings, you have nobody that blows you away.  The leader in strikeouts was Maholm with just 119.

Anyway – let’s look at what the Pirate rotation is going forward.  Maholm is back, as is Ohlendorf and Duke.  A full year of Charlie Morton – assuming he stays near league average as he did last year and doesn’t take a step back – will be better than what Ian Snell did last year (2 – 8, 5.36).  That leaves the fifth spot up for grabs.  Kevin Hart, acquired from Chicago for John Grabow, was miserable in his ten starts last year (1 – 8, 6.92) but really isn’t that bad.  Personally, I’d like to see Daniel McCutchen get a shot.  He got six decent starts down the stretch after going 13 – 6 with a 3.47 ERA and just 29 walks in 142.2 innings at Indianapolis.  He HAS to be better than what Kevin Hart did last year.

The Pirates are auditioning a ton of castoffs with Non-Roster Invites – a scary list of guys like Brian Burres, Jeff Karstens, Tyler Yates, and Jeremy Powell.  I don’t see any of these guys getting jobs other than those available in, say, Indianapolis.

The bullpen will be different.  After a rough year of Matt Capps, the Pirates signed Octavio Dotel to be the new closer.  Dotel has been a premium set up man, but as a closer he’s never really been up to the task – and that scares me.  Brendan Donnelly was signed (turns 39 on July 4th) to join Joel Hanrahan (my pick as future closer), Evan Meek, and Donnie Veal in the pen.  This is an eclectic mix of arms that I think improves if Kevin Hart is added to long relief and McCutchen is put in the rotation.

On the whole, however, I do see an improvement.  My take on it is that the starting rotation should be 20 runs better than last year.  It’s not enough.  They need a real ace to step forward – and Ohlendorf may be that guy – someone who is 20 – 30 runs above the league.  And to be really competitive, they need two.  I don’t see two of them here.  I see five guys who are within ten runs of league average over 200 innings – a bunch of third and fourth starters.

The bullpen may be better if only some of the guys logging innings (Jeff Karstens, Virgil Vasquez, and Chris Bootcheck) won’t be there.  But I don’t have strong faith that the eighth and ninth innings will be solid.  Let’s call it a wash.

Catching:

A full season of Ryan Doumit would help.  Doumit missed half the season, forcing Jason Jaramillo, not an offensive force, into the lineup.  Doumit is a middle of the order guy and could add 20 runs by hanging around for 130 games this year.  Defensively, this isn’t a strong group, being below average in team numbers (ERA, W-L PCT), fielding percentage, and being slightly mistake prone.  I’m not sure that Doumit will improve these numbers, but he’s the best Pirate against the running game and makes fewer mistakes than Robinson Diaz – who is NOT ready for the big leagues.

Infield:

Adam LaRoche is also gone – forgot to mention him in the selloff comment.  In his place might be Garrett Jones, who showed his slugging skills and wasn’t embarrassing at first base.  I don’t know that he’s going to be a huge step forward from LaRoche defensively, but you never know.  Jones hit 21 homers in 82 games – and a full season of that would be a huge step forward.  If not Jones, the Pirates may try Seattle prospect Jeff Clement there.  Clement has, at times, looked like the real deal in the minors but hasn’t put it all together in the bigs.  The Pirates would make immediate and big improvements if they would just move 2008 first round pick Pedro Alvarez here and call it good.

After Freddy Sanchez left, Delwyn Young took over and was a step back offensively and defensively.  Sanchez was creating about 5.5 runs per 27 outs; Young about 4.3.  Sanchez has slightly below average range (-3.9 plays per 800 balls in play), but Young was brutal (-10.2 per 800 balls in play).  To solve this problem, the Pirates picked up former Tampa Ray Akinora Iwamura.  Iwamura should be more like Sanchez in terms of range and batting.  Not playing Young is worth ten runs of offense.

Jack Wilson is gone and Ronny Cedeno is now the new shortstop.  Cedeno is a better fielder than Wilson these days – which could be worth ten runs over the course of a season – and was pretty much the same hitter.  Bobby Crosby arrives looking for a chance to play, but he’ll likely be a bench player for now.

Andy LaRoche finally got a shot at third base in the big leagues and proved to be a fantastic glove, but a league average hitter.  I like his chances of improving at the plate, however, now that he has a full season under his belt.

Looking forward, I see this team being about twenty runs better offensively and perhaps another twenty better defensively.  Unless, of course, Jeff Clement gets more playing time.  My fear is, in looking at the current depth chart, that Clement is going to get every chance at making the starting lineup.  If this happens, I’d go with no offensive improvement and only ten runs better defensively.

Outfield:

Wouldn’t it have been fun to see an outfield of, say, Jason Bay in left, Andrew McCutchen in center, and Nate McLouth in right?

Instead, McCutchen arrives as the full-time centerfielder.  He was a bit rough in the outfield last year, but he’ll be better – and he showed power, patience, and speed as an offensive force.  I like him a LOT.  And the other two guys are gone.

Garrett Jones will likely start in right field, which will be better than Brandon Moss offensively – but likely ten runs worse (or more) defensively.  Ryan Church is around, as is Moss.  Church used to be good until two nasty concussions clipped his 2008 season and likely affected his 2009 season.

In left, expect Lastings Milledge to get one last shot to make things work.  Milledge, to me, is the new Delmon Young.  He SHOULD be better, but is really nothing special.  Moss and Nyjer Morgan were great defenders and will be missed with this outfield.

I see the outfield being down this year – perhaps ten to twenty runs down offensively and twenty runs defensively.  If Milledge lives up to former top prospect expectations, it would help.  I just don’t buy it.

Prospects:

Well, the top pitchers in AAA (McCutchen, Morton, Vaszquez) are already in town.  Even Denny Bautista and Steven Jackson were given shots and didn’t take the world by storm.  The top AAA hitters are in Pittsburgh now, too.

Pedro Alvarez tore up AA playing for the Altoona Curve, hitting .333 with power.  He really needs to be on the Pirates now.  Gorkys Hernandez has great speed, and is 22 – but he needs to improve his OBP.  Jose Tabata, 21, is close to making it – he hit well enough at Altoona to get moved up to Indianapolis.  Not much power, better OBP than Hernandez with good contact skills, and decent speed.  Just not sure he’ll be better than a fourth outfielder at this point.  I think he can play some, though.  If Ryan Church doesn’t stay healthy, Tabata will get a shot.

The best pitchers at Altoona was probably Brad Lincoln (some power, good control) but it was the only time he looked solid since being drafted out of the University of Houston in the first round (2006).  He shares a birthday with the author, though, so he’s on my radar…  Former first round pick Daniel Moskos (2007) has control, but doesn’t blow people away – 77Ks in 149 innings.

Moving to Lynchburg, top picks Jordy Mercer (3rd Round, 2008) and Chase D’Arnaud (4th Round, 2008) started to show signs of progress.  Mercer might develop some power, while D’Arnaud seems to have a more well rounded game.  Both outhit Alvarez at A+ ball, but neither are REALLY better hitters…  You’ll see that when they get to AA.

On the whole, it’s hard to see who is going to help the Pirates, other than Alvarez, in the next year or two.

Outlook:

If the Pirates were serious about this, they’d get Jones in the outfield, move Alvarez to first base and play him now, and let both McCutchens play as often as possible.  This isn’t going to happen this spring, and as such, the Pirates have to hope for minor improvements.  I see the team scoring about 670 runs and allowing 740.  That gets them to 73 wins, which would look great compared to the last five years.  However, with the Reds and Brewers likely improving – it might not get to 73.  It might barely get to 70…

Cooper Fired in Houston; Did He Have a Chance?

This is your lot, Cecil Cooper.  Your two best players, Lance Berkman and Roy Oswalt, showed signs of getting older – missing time and underperforming.  Your shortstop is older than people were told and no longer is a force at the plate, and your starting catcher had played in more games than anyone in baseball history – then he was sent packing.  The rotation is patchwork at best, featuring one guy who may hold the record for DL trips (Mike Hampton) and a third starter who barely reaches 80 with his fastball and is only marginally tolerable (Brian Moehler).  Your fifth starter is 2 – 11 (Felipe Paulino – not to be confused with Fausto Carmona, but they have similar stats).  There are a couple of guys who aren’t half bad – Michael Bourn, Hunter Pence, Carlos Lee – but the bench slots are filled with people who probably can’t hit as well as you, Cecil.  Guys like Darin Erstad.  And Cooper hasn’t played in more than 20 years.

Through August, however, your team has hovered at the fringe of the race – sometimes a little above .500, sometimes a little below.  This isn’t a disappointment – like the Cubs – but probably a pleasant surprise.  I know lots of people who thought that, after spring training, Houston would finish with 100 losses and finish below Pittsburgh.

And now, Cecil Cooper has been fired.  Well, it wasn’t entirely your fault your team has no depth, no prospects, and gave away the catcher who, while he can’t hit, was keeping the pitching staff in games.  I mean, Wandy Rodriguez came into his own this year.  But you can’t take credit for that anymore either.  Reading the articles, the owner and GM felt that a team with a $103 million payroll should be better.  And, some of the players, like Berkman, felt responsible for Cooper’s firing.  And, to read it in Houston, the players no longer respected Cooper – not liking his style, and thinking that he didn’t handle game situations well.  Some writers in Houston think that his firing was inevitable, that he had no chance, but he deserved to be fired.  I think Ed Wade needs to be fired, too – he put this team together.  Cooper held it together, until too many pieces fell apart – and there weren’t players on the farm who could step up and contribute.  I mean, Russ Ortiz as a starter?  He hasn’t been good since 2004.  Maybe Dave Clark, the interim manager, will get a shot.  Not that Dave Clark had any more experience as a MLB manager than Cooper.  Either that, or Willie Randolph can get a shot at redemption.

Whomever gets the job next year is going to be lucky to win 70 games.  Cooper had done that. [ESPN/SI/MLB/Houston Chronicle]

Well – there’s no manager’s union for things like this.  However, when a player is a problem, thank God the MLB Players Association can step in and defend him.  Word is out that the MLBPA will file a grievance on behalf of Milton Bradley.  Guys – this is money well spent.

The Twins won last night, cutting the Tigers’ lead in the AL Central to just 2-1/2 games, but they will likely play a few games without outfielder Denard Span, who was beaned in the head last night.  Span felt soreness and a bit of dizziness, and is day-to-day.

Now, if the Twins catch the Tigers and the season ends in a tie, the challenge might be finding a place to play.  The Vikings hosts Green Bay in a Monday Night game, which is when the Twins would host the Tigers in a one-game playoff.  There may be nothing to worry about, but you never know.  MLB and NFL representatives will have to work out the details.  [ESPN]

Sometimes a slump is fixed based on who you play – and last night Kevin Millwood easily handled Oakland to get a win and lock up his contract for next season.  Of course, Oakland’s cleanup hitter is Kurt Suzuki and Bobby Crosby plays first base – so facing the A’s didn’t hurt…  [MLB]

Giants infielder Freddy Sanchez twisted his knee – the same knee that was bothering him when San Francisco acquired Sanchez from Pittsburgh.  He’s out for now, but may be available by the end of the week.

Hurry Back! Boston reliever Junichi Tazawa (left groin strain) went on the 60-day DL.

Welcome Back! Cubs outfielder Reed Johnson returns from the DL.

Afterthoughts… Aroldis Chapman, the Cuban defector, has established residency in Andorra, and hopes to sign a contract that will allow him to play for somebody in 2010.  Chapman chose a non-US location so as not to be part of the MLB Draft, which would make him a free agent and available to the highest bidder.  (Boston?  New York? Los Angeles?  I find it hard to believe he’d be a Marlin, but there are tons of former Cubans there…)  Chapman throws 100+, which is why he’s trying to be a free agent.  And, Andorra is kind of a playground for the rich families of Europe – and his agent hopes that Chapman may one day join them…  [ESPN]

Bullpen Injuries: Rivera and Street Shut Down; Senator Schilling?

Expect Yankee legend (closer doesn’t seem like enough of a title) Mariano Rivera to miss most of the rest of the week resting a sore groin, injured perhaps three weeks ago.  It’s in his left leg, which isn’t Mariano’s push off leg.  [SI]

Rockies closer Huston Street’s injury appears more serious, with Colorado closing down the Street because of bicep tendinitis.  Street says he’ll be out a week until the swelling and tenderness goes away.  [ESPN]

First, it was Michael Young, now Texas may be with Josh Hamilton (again) as he injured his lower back running the bases.  Hamilton is day-to-day.  [ESPN]

The amazing comeback of Aaron Boone from open heart surgery is complete – he not only played first base for the Astros against the Cubs last night, but one of his plays made ESPN’s top ten plays of the night.  [SI]

A less exciting comeback is that of Troy Glaus, who will likely just get a few pinch hitting appearances down the stretch for the Cards.  [ESPN]

Tension in Florida?  Hanley Ramirez is missing time with a sore hamstring, and his teammates called him out for his lackluster performance over the last few days and not playing while the team is trying to make a run at the wild card.  Among those not happy with Hanley is Dan Uggla, who not only took shots at Ramirez’s toughness, but ripped him for being the only well-paid player on the team.

Curt Schilling as a US Senator? He’s thinking about it – but because he’s not a registered member of the Republican Party in Massachusetts, he’d be running as an independent.  With the death of Ted Kennedy, there’s an open seat.  Why not the Bloody Sox hero?

Transactions… Other than more September call ups, here’s the other stuff…

Welcome back! Andres Torres (SF); David Patton (CHC); Jarrod Saltalamacchia (TEX); Doug  Mientkiewicz (LAD); Bobby Crosby (OAK)

Waiver Signings! Oakland claimed Jon Meloan from Pittsburgh.  Washington claimed Victor Garate from the Dodgers.  Garate must have injury issues, because his statistics show a VERY live arm tempered by frequent control lapses.  I’d let him recover for my minor league program…  Meloan has had a few chances, but really isn’t a prospect.  He’s “organizational depth”.