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…

Pedro, Smoltz Heading in Different Directions; Brewers Commence Another Late Season Overhaul

John Smoltz refused a minor league assignment, which leaves the Red Sox with two alternatives – trade the aging legend or release him.  All too rarely does an athlete leave on his own terms – sadly, it’s usually forced upon him/her through injury or failed performance.  Smoltz may get one  more shot, but that’s probably it.  Ken Rosenthal suspects it may be the Dodgers…  [FoxSports]

Pedro Martinez won his start, lasting five innings but getting tons of run support as the Phillies bombarded the Cubs last night.  Glad to see that I’m not the only one warning people to watch this with some level of caution.   I mean, three runs in five innings isn’t really stopper material – and Jamie Moyer would have likely won that start and lasted another innning or two…  [SI]

Milwaukee is trying to overhaul the roster in hopes of a late pennant run.  They put in a waiver claim on Diamondbacks starter Doug Davis, and also shook up things at home by firing pitching coach Bill Castro in favor of former starter Chris Bosio.  Then, the struggling J.J. Hardy was dispatched to AAA Nashville while Bill Hall was designated for assignment – which means he’ll be released and the Brewers will be eating about $11 million in Hall’s contract.  Coming up from AAA Nashville are two prospects, SS Alcides Escobar and OF Jason Bourgeois.  [SI/ESPN]

Alcides Escobar is a burner, a guy who makes contact, gets hits, steals bases and can cover ground in the field.  He’s not a leadoff guy – doesn’t really work the count and doesn’t have much power.  However, he can help – and J.J. Hardy isn’t helping by hitting .229 with 11 homers…  Baseball America ranked Escobar as Milwaukee’s top prospect, and has worked his way up the prospect ladder.  Jason Bourgeois isn’t going to take the world by fire – unless you need steals on your fantasy roster.  Originally an infielder in the Texas chain, he’s worked his way all over the minors for the Rangers, Braves, White Sox, and Seattle.  As best as I can tell, he’s a 27-year-old Willy Taveras – contact, speed, okay batting average and little else.  If he hits .270 and plays okay defense, he’ll be better than Hall, but he isn’t going to make anyone forget Mike Felder…  Unfortunately, he’s not a long term answer.

Boston’s Kevin Youkilis and Detroit’s Rick Porcello were suspended for five games following the bean/brawl.  Having watched it eight to ten times, Porcello doesn’t have a reason to be suspended and is challenging the decision.  Youkilis took the day off and Mike Lowell hit another homer in his place…  [ESPN]

Joba Chamberlain’s innings will be even more closely monitored as he shifts to a seven day rotation.  [ESPN]

Erik Bedard will have exploratory surgery to determine the source of the pain in his shoulder, and address the fraying already there.  What is open to debate is whether or not he’ll be back with the Mariners next year.  Seattle has an option, or could let Bedard become a free agent.  [ESPN]

Another pitcher going under the knife is Washington prospect Jordan Zimmermann, who gets Tommy John surgery and will likely not pitch until 2011.  [ESPN]

It doesn’t get better for the Mets.  Carlos Delgado’s hip recovery was stalled by a strained oblique muscle.  [FoxSports]

Kaz Matsui is one hit away from having 2000 combined hits in Japan and MLB – which would put him in a rather exclusive club among Japanese ballplayers.  He would join the Meikyukai, an elite group of players with 200 hits, 250 saves, or 200 wins – whether in Japan, the US, or both.  Others you may have heard of?  Ichiro Szuki, Hideki Matsui, and Hideo Nomo…  [MLB]

A couple of players got hit yesterday and had to leave games…  Yankee captain Derek Jeter was hit in the right instep by a pitch last night and couldn’t run the bases well, so was pulled in the third inning.  And, Reds starter Homer Bailey was struck by an Albert Pujols liner in the left foot and had to leave in the first inning.  Both are day-to-day.

Hurry Back!  Rich Aurilia (Giants) heads to the DL.  Evan Meek (Pirates) has a strained obligue – gets a DL stint.  Wesley Wright (Astros) has a strained left shoulder – gets a DL stint, too.

Welcome Back!  Other than Pedro, Lance Berkman (Astros) returned from the DL and helped slaughter my Marlins…  Another Astro – LaTroy Hawkins, also came off the DL yesterday.  The Giants returned Nick Hundley from the DL, as well as outfielder Nate Schierholtz…

Afterthoughts…  Colorado had signed Adam Eaton to the minor league deal and yesterday recalled Eaton from AAA.  Do they want to know how high of an ERA Eaton can get?  I mean, what’s the goal here?

Yesterday’s Trivia:  How to get from Tom Gordon to Rube Waddell in six steps?

When Gordon arrived, one of his teammates was the aging Billy Buckner, whose rookie team in 1972 included Hoyt Wilhelm.  Wilhelm played in St. Louis in 1957 with Stan Musial, whose 1941 teammate was future Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey.  Rixey’s career started in Philadelphia many, many moons earlier when he was a teammate of slugger Gavy Cravath.  Cravath’s career came together when he was an outfielder for the Minneapolis Millers from 1910 to 1911, where he was a teammate of Rube Waddell – who had joined the Millers prior to the 1911 season and would win the American Association.