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…

Beltre in Boston; Blyleven and Ballots – and Ken Rudolph Called…

Adrian Beltre gets one year to convince somebody that he’s still capable of being an impact player, signing a one-year, $10 million deal to man the hot corner for Boston.

I actually discussed this when the Mariners signed Chone Figgins…  Beltre remains a productive third baseman because his defense remains solid.  Last year, Figgins was a better offensive player, but the difference in terms of plays made per 800 balls in play makes them a wash despite the fact that Beltre missed about a third of the season.  In previous years, there’s no way I would have taken Figgins over Beltre.  So, if Beltre can stay healthy and bounce back a little with the bat, he’s going to help out.

This also means that Mike Lowell will likely STILL get traded once his thumb surgery heals and he can pass a physical.  [MLB]

Rockies add Olivo…

Miguel Olivo signed a one year, $2.5 million contract with Colorado where he will share catching duties with Chris Ianetta.  Olivo COULD become a late round fantasy sleeper – he has power (though he’s not a high average hitter) and is durable and if he gets a hot streak going in April, he might get the bulk of the playing time.  He’s active around the plate – if slightly error prone – and he’s now logging a lot of mileage changing teams… [ESPN]

Bucs Bring in Pitchers…

The Pittsburgh Pirates took low level chances on a couple of good arms hoping for another chance at making the big leagues…  Neal Cotts (former Cub and ChiSox pitcher), Tyler Yates (former Brave and Pirate), and Brian Burres (former Oriole and Blue Jay) all signed minor league deals.  Cotts and Yates are coming off of elbow reconstructive surgery (both happened in July).  If nothing else, this gives the Pirates some organizational depth they can test at AA or AAA and, if needed, can move into the bullpen later in the season.  [ESPN]

Taking Sides…

SI’s Jon Heyman explains his Hall of Fame vote – and why he didn’t vote for Bert Blyleven, saying that counting stats aren’t enough.

ESPN’s Jim Caple argues that Blyleven’s case for the Hall of Fame rests in a long career of top level performance and statistically significant contributions.

Personally, I’m pulling for Tim Raines.

Happy Birthday!

A lot of famous Chicago guys, including Bob Dernier (1957) and Ron Kittle (1958)  lead the birthday list.  Here’s a more complete list:

Bob Carruthers (1864), Byron Bancroft (Ban) Johnson (1864), Bill Dahlen (1870), Art Fletcher (1885), Benny Kauff (1890), Riggs Stephenson (1898), Luke Sewell (1901), Earl Battey (1935), Charlie Hough (1948), Jim Gantner (1953), Milt Thompson (1959), Henry Cotto (1961), John Russell (1961), Danny Jackson (1962), Jeff Fassero (1963), Juan Nieves (1965), Chris Nabholz (1967), Mark Redman (1974), and the Minor Twins – Damon and Ryan (1974).  I saw Ryan Minor play college ball when he was with Oklahoma and rooted for him, even though he never really made it work.

Ken Rudolph Called…

I’ll go a little further than this in a future post, but the other day was Ken Rudolph’s birthday.  Rudolph was a member of the first MLB draft in 1965 – getting picked in the second round by the Cubs, and one of seven catchers (like Ray Fosse) taken ahead of Johnny Bench in that draft…  Anyway – Rudolph made the Cubs and was Randy Hundley’s backup for about five or six years in Chicago before becoming a bit of a MLB nomad and later coach.

So, I decided to see if I could find Ken Rudolph online.  A quick Google search found a YouTube video of Ken discussing (among other topics) steroid usage and mentioning that he coaches kids.  So, I did another Google search but adding “high school” to the search terms and sure enough I found him.  He’s coaching high school ball in the Phoenix area.  Getting his email address, I shot him a happy birthday note and asked if I could talk to him about coaching kids and topics related to that.  Well, yesterday he called me at the office and we chatted for fifteen minutes about various baseball topics.

I’ll have the article written (and published locally here in South Florida) shortly – but I wanted to take a second to thank Coach Rudolph for calling me back and giving me a few minutes of his time.  It certainly made my day!

Of course, and this is the odd part, I chuckled at myself – I had to call dad to tell him (my dad, Kenneth, and my stepmother, Carol, are both Cubs fans) and for a half hour or so, I felt like a ten-year-old kid.  I mean – I’ve published a book about baseball, and as a reporter I covered Bob Dole and a governor’s race in Kansas, chased any number of coaches and athletes and I STILL get the same butterflies.  As goofy as this sounds, I hope that feeling never goes away.

What Will Phillies Get With Pedro Martinez? (And other news…)

The top story of the All-Star Game break (Barack Obama’s first pitch notwithstanding) was the Phillies giving $1 million to test drive Pedro Martinez.

Martinez, with 214 wins and just 99 losses, was the arguably the best pitcher of the 1990s, but really hasn’t been productive since then (not really, he’s had bouts of productivity in the 2000s – just fewer times).  Let’s just look at the last three years.

In 2006 with the Mets, Pedro made 23 starts, going 9 – 8 with a 4.48 ERA in 132.2 innings.  He still struck people out and had some decent control – but when he got hit, people were taking him deep.  19 of the 108 hits allowed were homers.  Taking the defense and park out of his stats, I show him as being about 9 runs worse than the average pitcher that year – the first time he’s actually hurting the teams for whom he has played.  Injured in 2007, Pedro made just five starts, winning three, and looked okay – 33 Ks in 28 innings, but also 32 hits. 

The Mets thought they might have something to hope for in 2008.  Only that year, Pedro was worse than ever.  In 20 starts, covering 109 innings, Pedro had a losing record (5 – 6), and an ERA that was double his career average (5.61).  He gave up 19 homers again, allowed more than a hit per inning and his strikeout rate fell.   Take the park and defense out of his stats, and he’s nearly 18 runs worse than the average pitcher in his 109 innings.  He was as bad as Roy Halliday is good.

We’re talking about a pitcher who was undependable from a health standpoint (missing about half of his starts), and his fastball isn’t going to blow you away – heck, it’s likely to land in the seats.  In Philadelphia, had he pitched the way he did at Shea in 2008, it’s possible that his ERA would be 7 or 8.  For now, Pedro’s on the DL (strained shoulder, discovered when he passed his physical?), and will essentially be making rehab starts.  He may get a start in the majors – but personally, I don’t want him to get his 100th loss.  Nobody has more pitches in the arsenal than Pedro had in his day, but I’m not convinced that he’s a viable alternative to what the Phillies already have.

In other news…

Pittsburgh reliever Tyler Yates had elbow surgery and will miss the rest of 2009, and could miss much of 2010.  (FoxSports)

Getting help for a tired bullpen, the Twins recalled Kevin Mulvey from Rochester, and sent third string catcher Jose Morales back to AAA.  Morales was hitting .343 with the Twins – now THAT’S a valuable third stringer!  Mulvey came over in the Johan Santana deal, spent very little time at the lower levels in the minors, but has been in AAA for a year and a half.  He’s not bad – could use a little bit better control and strikes out a few guys, but doesn’t look like a great one.  He peaks out for me as a fifth starter, long reliever type.  [ESPN]

Eric Milton’s 2009 comeback season is over following back surgery (herniated disk), but he has no intention of retiring – at least until he knows how his back feels when he’s done healing.  Milton has been resting a tired shoulder and elbow – but had been effective for the Dodgers when able to pitch. [ESPN]

It happened a couple of days ago, but I admit I was sorry to hear that Tony Clark had been released.  I always liked Tony – decent power, willing to work the count, and as a young guy was a decent fielder.  I’m not certain anyone will sign him and give him one more shot, but I’ll miss him.