Friday, February 27, 2009

The Pittsburgh Pirates' 2009 Slightly Premature Preview

Every year, some team completely jumps the entire Major League Baseball world. Last year it was arguably the Tampa Bay Rays or the Milwaukee Brewers. Some people will say the Rays had so much young talent that their magical run to the World Series wasn't such a surprise. That's find and good except show me one person who expected all that young talent to arrive so early and explosively.

I'd wager he or she will be tough to find (and homers don't count if any exist for Tampa).

Even so, the Brew Crew reversed—or at least gave a momentary reprieve—to Lord knows how many years of futility by trading for C.C. Sabathia and riding his left arm to the postseason.

Regardless of who your preferred stunner is, the point is there almost always is one. That's why I've been wanting to write about the Pittsburgh Pirates for a while. Not necessarily because they will play good baseball, but because there is reason to think they may be the team that shocks the baseball world.

Let's keep this in perspective.

For the Pirates, shocking would be a winning season. Obviously, the Buccos are subject to the same immutable rules of the baseball gods so they—like anyone else—could find their lucky stride and breeze deep into the postseason. But if there's a fan out there who sincerely believes that will happen, I'd request he/she be kept in restraints.

No, I'm talking there's reason to think these guys might be pretty good, even keep their collective head above water.

And that's gotta put a smile on the face of most Buc fans—the franchise is under the crushing weight of a 16-YEAR losing streak. As in, Pittsburgh hasn't played .500 ball for an entire season since 1992 (a year that saw the club win 96 games). Plus, they're a small market team in a down economy that labors in a division with one of MLB's big spenders—the Chicago Cubs.

Even with all the right breaks, it's gonna be tough for the Pirates to compete with the leviathan that figures to rule the division from the get-go. Still, check out the roster and there's a lot to like:

Projected starting lineup

Catcher—Ryan Doumit
First base—Adam LaRoche
Second base—Freddy Sanchez
Third base—Andy LaRoche/Eric Hinske
Shortstop—Jack Wilson
Left field—Nyjer Morgan/Eric Hinske
Center field—Nate McLouth
Right field—Brandon Moss/Eric Hinske

Craig Monroe is also floating around Spring Training on a minor league contract, but I think this is pretty much the way the Buccos will hit the field on Opening Day. The only legitimate question is whether Hinske will be starting at one of those three positions or whether he'll be handling each in a back-up capacity.

Starting rotation

Ace—Paul Maholm (L)
Second spot—Ian Snell (R)
Third spot—Zach Duke (L)
Fourth spot—Jeff Karstens (R)
Fifth spot—Tom Gorzelanny (L)

Again, I'm fond of alternating sides to mess with the opposing team. These guys are professional hitters, but hitting is still an ability where failing 70 percent of the time makes you one of the best in the business. Anything that makes it more difficult helps and it's gotta be easier settling into a groove when you see righty-righty-lefty-lefty-lefty. Phil Dumatrait is working his way back from injury and, depending on his progress (slow at the moment), he may figure in the picture—that might not be a good thing.


Closer—Matt Capps (R)
Set-up—John Grabow (L)
Set-up—Tyler Yates (R)
Set-up—Craig Hansen (R)

Alright, that's obviously not a juggernaut. Even if everyone plays above expectation.

I still say there's a lot to like, particularly on offense. Ryan Doumit can flat-out rake and that's a huge plus considering his contributes from the weakest position for offense on the field excluding the pitcher. Name another team that got a .318 average, 34 doubles, 15 homeruns, 69 runs batted in, 71 runs scored, a .357 on-base percentage, and an OPS of .858 in 431 at-bats from the guy donning the Tools of Ignorance.

The only catchers who consistently rate out above Doumit are names like Geovany Soto, Joe Mauer, Brian McCann, and Bengie Molina i.e. the best in the biz.

There's no need to delve too deeply into Nate McLouth other than to say his 2008 line—.276 average, 46 doubles, 26 taters, 94 RBI, 113 runs scored, 23 stolen bases, .356 OBP, and an .853 OPS in 597 ABs—was legit. Nate was probably the first Pirate All-Star in recent memory to earn his way onto the team rather than sneak in through the "Every Team Must Be Represented" side door.

And we were born on the same day (different years) so he's gotta be the real deal.

The rest of the lineup isn't too shabby either. Freddy Sanchez is a career .300 hitter (with no pop whatsoever) who won the batting title in 2006. Jack Wilson isn't gonna set the world afire, but he's a solid contributor from short. Both are slick leathermen up the middle.

Adam LaRoche typically starts slowly, but he's a pretty reliable bet for about a .270 average, 30+ doubles, 25 HRs, and a healthy run at 100 RBI. His brother has heretofore stunk the joint up—that's presumably why the Bucs grabbed Eric Hinske—but he was once a highly touted prospect in the Los Angeles Dodger system.

Ditto Brandon Moss except he was in the Boston Red Sox system.

Nyjer Morgan has only 267 big league ABs, but that's more than enough to form a relevant sample size since it probably takes at most 50 plate appearances (and he's obviously got more than 267 of those) for scouts in the Show to get a book on a guy. In those 267+ appearances, Morgan's registered a .296 average with 16 doubles, 41 runs scored, 16 SBs, and an OBP of .351.

However, that's the good. The bad is the pitching and that's the problem because you only go as far as your hurlers can take you. On the hill, the glimmer of hope is flickering a little less brightly.

Paul Maholm, Ian Snell, Zack Duke, and Tom Gorzelanny have all shown flashes of brilliance in their young careers. Unfortunately for them, the flashes have been more the exception than the general rule. Still, that means they have the talent to do the job on a nightly basis; the trick is actually doing it. With that much obvious ability and a considerable amount of it coming from the south side, I'd be cautiously optimistic if I were a Pittsburgh fan.

Consistency is the last thing to come for pitchers and it often comes unexpectedly.

The bullpen's absolute back end is actually pretty stout if form holds. Matt Capps is a beast and John Grabow filled in serviceably when Capps went down with injury. Tyler Yates wasn't too bad either in a couple save spots and can bring it from the left side (see a common theme here?). The rest of the picture is murky though and you need more than three arms to get through 162 games.

Craig Hansen hasn't exactly been overwhelming to date. And the rest of the guys don't have much of a track record of which to speak.

Here's the real rub though: Sanchez is 31 years old, Yates 31, Hinske 31, Wilson 31, Grabow 30, Adam LaRoche 29, Morgan 28, Doumit 28, Snell 28, McLouth 27, Maholm 27, Duke 26, Karstens 26, Gorzelanny 26, Capps 25, Andy LaRoche 25, and Moss 25.

Almost every significant piece is inside a pretty nice window where performance can leap forward a la Nate McLouth. That kind of youth can work for you as Tampa Bay proved last year (the Rays leap was more surprising because their parts are even younger). The starting pitching is in a particularly nice window with nobody older than Snell's 28 years nor younger than 26.

Obviously, not every pro progresses through his entire career. But there is a lot of talent in that group; the Bucs have a lot of chances for a player to break through and tap his full potential.

As I said from the start, the Cubbies are obviously the class of the National League Central and I'm sure some frequenters of Wrigley would tell you the entire Senior Circuit. But the rest of the division is in shambles to be kind.

Milwaukee is down both Sabathia and Ben Shields. The St. Louis Cardinals pitching is a rather large question mark, such that the loss of Braden Looper could actually be shades of devastating. The Houston Astros have been reduced to relying on another miracle year from Lance Berkman and (GULP) Mike Hampton's physical integrity.

There's a reasonable chance that the Pirates could be duking it out with the Cincinnati Reds for second place in a relatively watered down division—don't get me wrong, it's still a gauntlet of ferocity compared to the NL West.

If that happens, the Pittsburgh Pirates would probably be winning more often than they'd be losing. To any serious fan of baseball for the last 15 years, that'd be every bit as shocking as Tampa Bay in World Series.

Or the key guys could all prove to be destined for mediocrity and the Pirates could flirt with 100 losses yet again. But who wants to see that?

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