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…

Jeter Ties Gehrig; Ripken’s Monument Recovered

Cue Tim Kurkjian – it’s time for the Derek Jeter retrospective…  Jeter’s third hit last night (breaking an 0 – 12 streak) tied him with Lou Gehrig atop the all-time list for most hits in a Yankees uniform.  Certainly Jeter is worthy – a heads up player who hustles every night, plays nearly every day, and is nearly universally accepted as the face of MLB.  Congratulations are certainly in order.  [ESPN]

So how many more hits does Jeter have in him?  Averaging 160 hits a year until he’s 40 (not a total stretch; he’d have to stay healthy and near the top of the lineup to do it), he’d have 3500+ hits.  He’d have to change positions or seriously exceed 160 hits per season to make a legitimate run at 4000 hits (not impossible).  Personally, I think Rose’s hit record is likely safe, but if Jeter hits 40 closer to 3750 hits and is still batting around .310 when he gets to 40, he’d at least have a shot.  Is Jeter capable of playing until he’s 44 or 45?

Another player who could make the 3000 hit club is just four hits shy of his ninth straight 200 hit season – Ichiro Suzuki.  Ichiro would pass the record previously held by Wee Willie Keeler, who had 200 hits each year from 1894 to 1901.  Ichiro already has 2001 MLB hits, and 1278 hits while playing in Japan, putting him about 5 years shy of Pete Rose’s career mark if you combine the two leagues.  Now – to be fair, playing in Japan is a far cry from playing in the majors, but they also play shorter seasons.  Rose had another 427 hits as a minor leaguer playing in the Reds chain, so perhaps Ichiro should be gunning for 4683 total professional hits…  [MLB]

One more Tim Kurkjian moment…  Brian Roberts collected his 50th double last night, the third time he has done that, joining Tris Speaker (5), Paul Waner (3), and Stan Musial (3) as the only players to have had 50 or more doubles in three or more seasons.  [MLB]

Dodgers pitcher Randy Wolf thinks he followed in the footsteps of Randy Johnson – injuring his elbow swinging a bat.  Word is that Wolf will miss at least one start with tightness in his elbow, but you never know.  Thankfully, Hiroki Kuroda is back.  [ESPN]

Meanwhile, teammate Clayton Kershaw will miss a start after bruising his shoulder shagging flies during batting practice.  Kershaw ran into an auxiliary scoreboard – with his right (non-throwing) shoulder.  When he can deal with the pain, he’ll pitch again.  [FoxSports]

Phillies pitching woes continue…  Scott Eyre is getting an examination on his elbow, and J.A. Happ will miss a start with an oblique strain.  Jamie Moyer gets the start in Happ’s absence.  [ESPN]

Boston knuckleballer Tim Wakefield will get a cortisone shot to help his ailing lower back, hoping to coax a start out of the 43-year-old pitcher about ten days from now.  [MLB]

Speaking of bumps and bruises…  Cardinal outfielder Matt Holliday stumbled running out a grounder and bruised his knee and is day-to-day.  And B.J. Upton’s ankle is bothering him – he looked slow chasing a Derek Jeter double in the fifth and was pulled by manager Joe Maddon.  [MLB]

Four men were arrested and charged with stealing the aluminum “8” that honors Cal Ripken, Jr. outside of Camden Yards.  While the monument was recovered, it’s not yet known if the monument can be remounted on its base.  [SI]

The Twins activated Francisco Liriano off the DL, but announced that the disappointing starter is now going to be used out of the bullpen for the rest of the year.  [SI]

The Orioles acquired Sean Henn from the Twins for future considerations (cash or a minor leaguer).  Henn is a long-time Yankees prospect who is now with his fourth organization (also San Diego).  The 28-year-old had a few other MLB trips, but hasn’t stuck – so consider Henn “organizational depth”; he’s not a prospect at this stage of his career.  [SI]

A frustrated Jose Reyes still wants to try to play in 2009, and has even offered to play winter ball to be ready for the 2010 season.  Reyes hasn’t played since late May – when the Mets were just one game out of first…  Seems so long ago, doesn’t it?  [FoxSports]

Welcome Back! Those returning from the DL include Dexter Fowler (Rockies), Jeff Karstens (Pirates), Ryan Hanigan (Reds), Brendan Donnelly (Marlins), Donald Veal (Pirates) and Joe Crede (Twins).

Ready for the Draft? Hamilton Set for Surgery, Others on the Mend

Major League Baseball readies for the draft – and you can get updates in any number of ways, including Twitter (@MLBDraft).  The MLB.com site, for which I am a shameless plug (it’s a great site, really), will have updates and commentary.  And, MLB TV (if you have a premium cable outlet) will have wall-to-wall coverage on its flagship station.

Ultimately, the top question is whether or not the Nationals want Stephen Strasburg (they do – he throws 102 with pinpoint control of at least three pitches), and whether or not they can pay for him (Scott Boros is his agent).  Jerry Crasnick (ESPN) thinks this could be one of the great wars in Player/Team negotiations.

Having thought through this, I think the Nationals should sign him.  And, at that point, babying the investment goes out the window.  Strasburg gets three starts in the minors at AA and if he wins, he goes right into the rotation.  His contract should be based on major league innings – he cannot receive the full salary if he’s not on the major league roster.  Then, once Strasburg arrives, he gets USED and ABUSED.  He pitches every fourth game, and the Nationals get every inning humanly possible out of that arm.  I’d make him throw 300 innings by his third season – the Nationals need to get moving and in a hurry, there’s no need to treat him like a prospect – especially if he’s getting established player money.  He wants ace money, he walks in and pitches like an ace.  Or he doesn’t get paid.

I think that’s a fair trade.  If Strasburg wants every penny that the Nationals can afford to give, Strasburg has to give the Nationals every inning he can afford to give.

Additionally, if he FAILS – and the annals of draft history are paved with failure at the top pick – it could set back the amount of money given to hyped draft picks, which would be good for everyone involved.  Nobody, including Boros, will be able to ask for tens of millions and get it because of the “Strasburg incident.”

Josh Hamilton will have surgery to repair a partially torn abdominal muscle – no fun – but could be back after the all-star break.  In addition to the hole in the lineup, what fun will be the Home Run Derby without the guy who set the Derby on fire last season?  No matter who  plays, there will be a loss of production – sort of – no replacement will be as good as Hamilton was last year, but Hamilton has been more than ordinary so far this season fighting off injuries.  And, Hamilton really can’t cover centerfield as well as most centerfielders.

Texas is also losing starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy to a stress fracture in his throwing shoulder – the second time this has happened since 2007.  Taking McCarthy’s spot in the rotation for at least one turn will be Doug Mathis, a Texas farmhand who has decent control but not much of an out pitch.  He’s been lights out in Oklahoma City in his last four starts, though, so he’ll get a shot.  Mathis isn’t a BAD pitcher, but he was smacked around some in 2008.  And, he’s been hurt in the minors on at least two occasions.

Other DL trips include: Casey Kotchman (ATL), Calf; Eric Milton (LAD), Back; Luis Perdomo (SD), Knee.

On the Mend? Evan Longoria was back in the lineup for the Rays.  Hanley Ramirez plays through a sore groin for the Marlins, Miguel Cabrera is back for the Tigers.  Jose Contreras returned to the White Sox from Carolina.  Guys heading to rehab trips include: Khalil Greene (STL); Donald Veal (PIT); Pat Burrell (TB); Robinson Tejada (KC); Rich Harden (CHC) heads to Iowa.

Barry Bonds has another legal issue to deal with.  His wife filed separation papers; a divorce is imminent.

Volquez Leaves Early and Everybody Strains a Groin

That didn’t last long…  Edinson Volquez makes his return for the Reds and lasts one inning – leaving with numbness in his pinky and ring fingers of his throwing hand.  An evaluation is forthcoming.

When is nothing a news article?  When a Houston Chronicle writer blogs about the Chicago White Sox showing interest in Roy Oswalt – and then White Sox GM Ken Williams denies that rumor publicly.

The New York Yankees topped Cleveland, setting a new errorless string in the process at 18 games.  A team will make an error at a rate of about five errors every eight games – give or take.  Consider it a coin flip – so to have won that coin flip 18 straight times is pretty remarkable.  It’s also contributed to winning because unnecessary runs don’t show up on the scoreboard.

Ichiro tied his own Mariners record by hitting in his 25th straight game.  MLB.com listed the Mariners who cleared 20 games, and it’s pretty much Ichiro – a lot – with an odd Joey Cora or Richie Zisk tossed in for good measure.

The Cleveland Indians are sharing the injury bug as well as any team.  Rafael Betancourt has been placed on the DL with a strained groin (hope it’s his own), making it eight players on the DL right now.  (Victor Martinez was able to play tonight – so they got lucky there…)  Coming back is Tony Sipp.  Sipp was hurt a couple of years ago, but has those dominating strikeout numbers that makes you hope that he’ll bring the good stuff to the majors – like nearly 12Ks per nine in the minors.  He was crazy wild, though, in his first stint, so let’s hope he leaves that wildness back in Columbus (AAA).

Strained groins are the injury of choice.  The Mets placed Angel Pagan, who was called up because of injuries to every other Mets outfielder (kidding, sort of), on the 15-day disabled list with a strained groin.

I was watching the Marlins game when two Brewers outfielders left with potential injuries – Mike Cameron and Ryan Braun.  I’m guessing both are day-to-day.  By the way, as a Marlins fan, it was nice seeing Jorge Julio blow a lead for someone else this time…

On the Mend?  Houston’s Jose Valverde threw from a mound for the first time since going to the DL with a calf injury.  The fading Astros need Valverde back as soon as possible.  And, Seattle’s Kenji Johjima says his toe injury is way better than originally feared.  Ervin Santana heads to Salt Lake City for a rehab stint and the Angels are two weeks away from a healthy and solid rotation (one prays).

Anibal Sanchez is going to come off the DL and start for the Marlins on Tuesday.  His rehab start in Jupiter went well and Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez hopes to get five good innings out of him.

And, Hiroki Kuroda, who hasn’t started since opening day, came off the DL to start for Los Angeles Monday night.  His return was well timed – the guy who replaced him, Eric Stults, just went to the DL himself.  Kuroda pitched well, but his Dodgers failed to win.

Not on the Mend?  The Yankees got some bad news today – both Xavier Nady’s and Jose Molina’s rehab efforts were curtailed with those nasty twinges…  In Molina’s case, he was catching when his injured quad acted up.  For Nady, it was an elbow that balked at throwing.

Justin Duchscherer’s elbow may be ready, but we’ll never know because he’s got a bad back.

Welcome to the show, Steven Jackson – the Pirates’ choice to replace Donald Veal.  Jackson was a 10th round pick of Arizona in 2004 out of Clemson and has hung around AAA for a few years now.  He has decent control, but not a great strikeout pitch.  Sent to the Yankees in the Randy Johnson deal, he started to show progress in 2008, but didn’t get a shot.  Eventually released, the Pirates grabbed him off the waiver wire a few weeks ago and he’s been okay.  Not a prospect, but he MIGHT eat a few innings for Pittsburgh.

If you are interested in reading more about Barry Bonds and how the Feds are going to appeal decisions that would disallow various testimony in the Bonds perjury trial, click here.

Moyer’s Milestone and Hamilton is Hurt (Again)

Jamie Moyer, left for dead about 15 years ago, won his 250th game Sunday night against Washington. I always liked him – he’s a poor man’s Tom Glavine, and now they have about 555 wins between them. Guys like Moyer need a few breaks and he got his with Baltimore, putting his career back together in the minors, and then getting tossed to Seattle where they needed someone to eat innings. He not only ate innings, he put batters to sleep, winning 20 twice and last year getting a ring. I have all his Topps baseball cards and will flip through them again tonight before I crash.

Wouldn’t want to be on Cleveland right now with everybody going down to injuries. I mean, Carl Pavano is DUE, right??? I mentioned earlier that Grady Sizemore’s elbow was bothering him. Now he’s on the DL with what is defined as left elbow synovitis. Victor Martinez might be next.

Zack Greinke’s ERA went over 1 (1.10) in a no-decision against the White Sox. The bullpen tanked for the Royals. Joakim Soria may be back this week, and it’s not a moment too soon.

Meanwhile, backup catcher John Buck gets a DL stint with a slight herniation in his lower back. Ouch. Brayan Pena gets the trip from Omaha in his place.

The first to twenty homers is San Diego’s Adiran Gonzalez. The Marlins gave up on this guy because, at the time, they had Derrek Lee and other options, but boy can he hit.

The Yankees haven’t made an error in 17 games, tying a ML record.

The struggling Josh Hamilton crashed into a wall a few days back, but since then has had a stomach injury that will require an MRI.

Eric Stults, who had pitched so well in place of Hiroki Kuroda, goes to the DL with a left thumb injury. His replacement, Travis Schlichting, is a converted third baseman who’s making quick strides in the minors but may not be ready. Stults injured his thumb making a diving play on a slow roller. I like Stults, and hope he’s right when he says he’ll be back soon.

Donald Veal is going to Pittsburgh’s DL. I never heard of him either. With ten walks in five innings, he’s straining more than just his groin.

On the mend? Kyle Lohse may return to the Cardinals soon, and J.C. Romero’s PED suspension is nearly over, meaning time to get pitching for the Phillies again.

May ends with the Yankees, Detroit, and Texas leading the AL – who would have thought Texas would have the best record in the AL? Boston, trailing NY by a half game, would be the wild card rep.

In the NL, Philadelphia has now edged ahead of NY, Milwaukee leads a strong NL Central, and Los Angeles is running away with the West – I was way off on that one. They won’t win 108 games (current pace), but they are getting a lot of mileage out of odd places. Eric Milton and Jeff Weaver were left for dead and they are contributing now. Miracle, really. St. Louis would have the wild card in a very close race with NY, Cincy, and Chicago.

NOTE: Transaction and Injury Data from MLB.com’s Players/Transactions Page.