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…

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Dodgers and Cubs Fortify Bullpen; Pirates Nearly Devoid of ML Roster

The Los Angeles Dodgers sent two prospects to Baltimore to acquire George Sherrill; the Oriole closer will become the eighth inning pitcher in front of Jonathan Broxton or give Joe Torre an alternate closer if needed.  Baltimore gets Josh Bell and Steve Johnson, two solid prospects.  In fact, if you add it up, the Orioles originally got Sherrill as part of the Erik Bedard trade, so to trade Sherrill for two more players, Baltimore has actually turned Bedard into six players.  [ESPN]

Sherrill was an all-star in 2008 and has actually gotten better in 2009, with just a single loss against 20 saves and a 2.40 ERA.  Josh Bell is a third baseman with some skill – just 22 (drafted out of Lantana HS in Florida), he’s improved his patience and contact as he’s moved through the minors, has a little power, and likely can be considered a replacement to Melvin Mora in 2011.  Steve Johnson is the son of former Oriole pitcher (and current broadcaster) Dave Johnson.  He fights his control from time to time, but he’s got a big strikeout pitch and just arrived in AA one month shy of 22 and looked impressive.  If he rights the control ship, he’d be a solid prospect.  For now, he’s a live arm with potential.

 The Cubs swapped pitchers with the Pirates, sending starter Kevin Hart, reliever Jose Ascanio, and minor league infielder Josh Harrison to Pittsburgh for reliever John Grabow and Jayhawk alum, Tom Gorzelanny.  The Cubs wanted left handed pitching – especially a situational lefty – and got it.  The Pirates swap someone who was good once for someone who could make the rotation right away (Gorzelanny for Hart)…  This isn’t much of a trade, but the bonus could be nice for the Bucs – and that’s Josh Harrison.  Harrison is a mobile infielder who makes good contact and is willing to work the count.  In a couple of years, he could be playing second base and batting second in the Pirates lineup.  I actually like this deal for Pittsburgh.  [SI]

The Cubs will be looking for an outfielder to replace Reed Johnson, who fouled a ball off his foot, causing a fracture that will sideline Johnson for three to four weeks.  [MLB]

Kansas City sent cash to Detroit for outfielder Josh Anderson.  I like Anderson, though he’s never really made a big splash at the major league level yet.  He’ll be a welcome defender for Royals pitchers, and with the underperforming Jose Guillen out with a knee injury. he’s actually a step up over what the Royals are playing now.  He’s NOT going to change the fortune of the Royals – Anderson is a line drive guy with not a whole lot of power and never drew a ton of walks – but at least he can play a little.  Kansas City needs a BOPPER.  [ESPN]

Arizona’s ace Brandon Webb’s shoulder has never felt right this year, and now he’s going to be examined again – in part to determine if he needs surgery.   This all started when Webb was negotiating an extension, and now he’s likely going to miss two full seasons…  [ESPN]

Hurry Back!  Brewer starter Jeff Suppan heads to the DL with a strained oblique.

Is it Over?  Houston released Russ Ortiz.  He hasn’t won a July game in five years – and the Cubs pounded him last night.

Both St. Louis and Oakland are Winners in the Holliday Deal

Friday’s hot topic was the trade of Matt Holliday from the Oakland A’s to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for three prospects.  Will this give the Cards a leg up on the rest of the very tight NL Central?

Let’s give this a look see.

In acquiring Matt Holliday, that means that the Cards are effectively replacing what used to be the departed Chris Duncan or the disappointing Rick Ankiel (since rookie Colby Rasmus made an impact on the team and now plays center) with a so-far disappointing Holliday.  As a defender, Holliday is better than Duncan, but not appreciably better than Ankiel in left.  However, he might be about 20 runs better as a hitter – and likely to be more healthy – than the combination of Duncan and Ankiel.  Moving Ankiel to the bench as a fourth outfielder, pinch hitter isn’t a bad thing either.  If Holliday goes haywire upon his return to the NL – hitting like Manny Ramirez in LA or Mark Teixeira in LAA (Angels) last year – it could be better, but you cannot predict .350 and power for two months.

I’m not convinced that this is going to make Albert Pujols a better hitter.  So, stop saying that, sports reporters – Pujols doesn’t need protection and people are still going to be afraid to pitch to him.  It’s just depth in the lineup – and good depth.

What the Cardinals really need is for Mark DeRosa to get hot and make the team forget the Joe Thurston experiment, and for Julio Lugo to break free as the new second baseman, hitting better than Khalil Greene, Brian Barden, and Tyler Green have hit trying to impersonate a shortstop.  Brendan Ryan has been good enough, but if Lugo suddenly finds his form at the top of the lineup, THAT extra 15 – 20 runs would be equally valuable.  In the NL central, forty extra runs in 65 games would be a significant improvement – possibly worth 6 games to the good, and in a race as close as this one, an extra six wins would go a long way to putting St. Louis in the playoffs.

For Oakland, they get three prospects.  What did Oakland receive?

Most analysts are saying the keystone is Brett Wallace, a first round pick in 2008 who has stormed through A, AA, and now AAA for St. Louis.  At Memphis, Wallace was hitting .293 with a little power (which I believe will continue to improve), and until recently had always shown patience at the plate.  His OBP in two minor league seasons is .390, though it was over .400 at every stop until Memphis.  Oakland’s current third sacker, Eric Chavez, is rehabbing and may not return to his prime.  He’s 32 and will have missed more than two seasons worth of games in the last three years.  So – this addresses an important need for Oakland in 2010 and beyond.  In fact, Wallace’s stats make you think of Eric Chavez in his prime, which would be great for the A’s over the next five or six seasons.

Shane Peterson is a 21 year old outfielder who has shown some speed and a little pop in his bat since being drafted in the second round of the 2008 draft out of Long Beach State.  His numbers remind me a little of Juan Encarnacion, hopefully with a little bit better speed.  As of today, I think he projects out as a good fourth outfielder and if he could add a little power to his frame, would be a nice addition to someone’s lineup.  At 15 – 70 – .275, he’s probably the bottom edge of where you’d want a starting outfielder to be, but if he got to 20 – 80 – .290, he’d be very nice.

The third prospect was another first round pick: Clayton Mortensen, who was taken in 2007 out of Gonzaga.  He’s not a bad option, having shown improvement in 2009 pitching in AAA for Memphis.  He was in AAA for fourteen starts last year, seventeen starts this year and his H/9 rate is down a full hit, his strikeout rate has improved, and his walk rate has gone from 4.7 to 2.9 per nine innings.  And, despite pitching in the PCL, he’s had decent success keeping the ball in the park.

Look – the A’s were only going to get two more months of Holliday.  He’s a free agent at the end of the season, so assuming Oakland wasn’t planning to sign him, they might have received two decent draft picks as compensation.  Instead, they got the equivalance of three high draft picks, and got three picks that have shown improvement and potential.  So, I’d have to grade the trade as a very positive one for the As, and one that could have a significant impact as early as 2010.

And, for St. Louis, they added someone who could help finish the job and win the NL Central – and, if he signs, could pair up with Albert Pujols for a couple of playoff runs over the next four or five years.  If he LEAVES, the Cards get two more early round picks – which makes up for two of the three they lost.  So, it’s still potentially positive for St. Louis.

All in all – I think it’s a great deal for both clubs, though I’d lean slightly in favor of Oakland.

In Other News…

The Cubs lost Ted Lilly to the DL for two weeks with an ailing shoulder.  Kevin Hart will likely take his starts, and fortunately Ryan Dempster is nearly ready to return.  Justin Berg arrives from AAA to help in the bullpen.  If you were wonder, Berg is nice, but not a prospect.  [MLB]

Texas starter Vincente Padilla was diagnosed with H1N1 – swine flu.  He’ll be fine – already feels better – but out for a few more days.  According to ESPN, Padilla is the fifth Ranger to come down with the flu in recent days.  [ESPN]

 Welcome Back!  Alex Gonzalez returns to the Reds from the DL.

Mitre is Number 5 for Yankees; More Cubs Taking Time Off to Injury

With Chien-Ming Wang on the DL, the Yankees will audition Sergio Mitre in the number five spot of the rotation.  Manager Joe Girardi knows Mitre well – Mitre pitched for him in Florida back in 2006.  Mitre had a good May and June that year, but fell off after that.  He’s been injured – and then missed 50 games this year after testing positive for androstenedione.  The 28 year old pitched well in three minor league stops, but has never had any extended period of success in the majors.  At this point, one wonders why the Yankees insist on not using Phil Hughes – though Hughes has been successful in the eighth innings as Mariano Rivera’s caddy.  [FoxSports]

Detroit reliever Joel Zumaya returns to the DL with an injured shoulder, suffered in last night’s loss to the Yankees.  [SI]  Ryan Perry gets the nod from AAA Toledo.

Milwaukee slugger Ryan Braun is day to day with a wrist and thumb injury.  He left last night’s game saying he couldn’t grip the bat.  [MLB]

Cub starter Ted Lilly will miss today’s start against Washington due to a sore knee.  Randy Wells moves up a day, and Kevin Hart will pitch tomorrow.  [SI]

Lilly’s teammate, the struggling Alfonso Soriano, will miss a few days (at least) with a dislocated pinky.  He says he hurt it diving into first base on a pickoff play.  [SI]

Is Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez done?  Texas released him from his minor league contract. [FoxSports

The injury riddled career of Reds reliever Mike Lincoln hit another bump…  Lincoln will have surgery to replace a disc in his neck.  [FoxSports]

Your Weekend Update

The New York Daily News reports that Alex Rodriguez, who skipped two games this weekend in the Yankees series with the Florida Marlins, will be rested at least one game each week for the next month.  The plan was suggested by A-Rod’s surgeon, Marc Philippon, but Sports Illustrated’s John Heyman says that GM Brian Cashman made the final call.

C.C. Sabathia left Sunday’s start against the Marlins with soreness in his left biceps.  Despite this, Sabathia says he won’t miss a turn in the rotation.  During the game, catcher Jorge Posada said the big lefty’s pitches lacked their normal velocity.

Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka went on the 15-day DL with a shoulder injury (soreness is what is listed), but manager Terry Francona suggests that 15 days may not be enough.  Dice-K is 1 – 5 with an 8.23 ERA in eight starts.

Cincinnati shortstop Alex Gonzalez heads to the DL with bone chips in his throwing elbow.  Surgery will be required.  It’s been a rough couple of years for Gonzalez – minor injuries this season, following a 2008 season that was lost to a compression fracture in his left knee.

Mets Centerfielder Carlos Beltran’s right knee continues to bother him, and so he’s scheduled for an MRI on Monday.

The Cubs placed pitcher Angel Guzman on the DL with a right triceps strain.  Kevin Hart gets the call from Iowa.  Acquired from Baltimore, Hart has been solid at AAA Iowa, and hopes to have a better run with the Cubs this year than in 2008 when he went 2 – 2 with a 6.51 ERA.

The Red Hot Rox sent pitcher Manny Corpas to the DL with bone spurs in his throwing elbow.

On the Mend?

The Phillies got some good news – Brad Lidge could be activated this week if Lidge’s knee continues to feel solid.

Dodger pitcher Eric Milton heads to a rehab assignment, as does Atlanta’s Greg Norton.

Texas closer Frank Francisco returned to the lineup this weekend.

Finally, Toronto sent struggling Joe Inglett to AAA Las Vegas and recalled Russ Adams, a former starting shortstop who has been playing the outfield and may be a good utility type for the Jays going forward.  Adams was a first round pick, had a decent rookie season, but his fielding became problematic and it affected his hitting.  His career has actually been going backwards for five years, so this is a good “restart” for Adams, and I’ll be rooting for him.