The NL Central Offseason Revue Pt. 5: Blue Steel Buccaneers

Zoolander

I'm writing this Monday night, as I'll likely be indisposed on Wednesday. Hopefully the Pirates don't make any huge trades or signings before then.

You know what I would do if I had, like, a billion dollars? I would commission a remake of the movie "Toys". Just one of the worst movies I've ever seen (though only about the seventh or eighth worst movie Robin Williams has ever made), but I really like it. And it had such promise. I picture my version as something like a really sad combination of "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory", "Finding Neverland", and "Metropolis". I'm fairly certain everyone but me would hate it, but I'm willing to take that chance. Unfortunately, my bank statement shows a balance slightly less than a billion dollars at the moment, so my dreams of  celluloid glory are on hold for now. However, if anyone reading this blog has $100 million they would like to do something really stupid with, I could probably have you a script before summer.

Oh, and I would also do two chicks at the same time.

Let's take a look at the final team in the NL Central, shall we?

Pittsburgh Pirates 2009 Record: 62-99, 28.5 games out of first

Pythagorean Record: 67-94 (636 runs scored, 768 runs allowed)

The Pittsburgh Pirates are a bad baseball team. There's really no way around it.  Dress it up however you like, it's still a bad baseball team. They nearly lost 100 games last year, and that Pythagorean record shows it wasn't a fluke. Sure, they were probably more of a mid- than high-90s loss team in actuality, but that's not an argument you can really win, regardless of the outcome.

I already covered one of Pittsburgh's moves this offseason, that of trading for Akinori Iwamura from Tampa Bay, and it actually taught me one of the most valuable lessons I've learned as a professional writer. The lesson is this: when you don't know much about a subject, do your research before you write about it. When a trade happens, if you only have half an hour before you have to leave your house and computer, do not, under any circumstances, try to just wing it and get a quick piece up in order to be timely. The news will still be there when you get home, and you won't look like a complete horse's ass for forgetting Jack Wilson was traded to the Mariners. Accuracy is preferable to immediacy. (A related lesson can be found in the Cubs' version of this series, when I mistakenly listed Derrek Lee as a player who underperformed last season as a result of hurried rearranging of sentences and not proofreading properly.)

Offense 

After so many years of hearing how the Pittsburgh Pitching Revolution would not be televised (or, at least, it wouldn't be watched if it was), it was the offense that provided most of the excitement in Privateer country in 2009. Well, perhaps excitement is stretching it a bit; this is a team which managed to score less than 650 runs, after all. But pieces of the offense most definitely did make some noise. The noisiest? Andrew McCutchen, of course. McCutchen looks like an emerging star after a rookie season in which he essentially looked a lot like what we were all hoping Colby Rasmus would be. Great speed, great defense, and a 122 OPS+ as a 22 year old. What's not to like?

As for the rest of the Pirate offense, it's pretty much up in the air, quite honestly. The club traded away  Nate McClouth, their best offensive player, at mid-season. Also moved was Freddy Sanchez, their All-Star second baseman. With two of their more imposing offensive forces no longer in the lineup, the Pirates struggled mightily to figure out where the run production was going to come from. Formerly imposing Ryan Doumit slumped to a .299 OBP, short-circuiting what was becoming an intriguing career. There is reason to believe, though, he could bounce back with a fully healthy 2010 campaign.

To address that concern in 2010, the Pirates have a few options. McCutchen will be on board for a full season, which will be a huge boon. Iwamura won't likely be a huge upgrade over Freddy Sanchez, but he should provide a solid piece for whatever puzzle the Pirates are constructing this season. In addition to the hoped-for improvement from Doumit, the Pirates will also have another option at catcher in Jeff Clement, acquired from the Seattle Mariners. Clement has never quite lived up to the lofty expectations he carried with him early in his minor league career, but he's still young and has a ton of power potential if nothing else.

The presence of Clement could also set up an interesting choice for Pittsburgh at first base, as they have Pedro Alvarez, one of the top prospects in all of baseball, very nearly ready to make a splash at the big league level. Clement has never been much of a catcher, but doesn't project to move anywhere but first.

And really, that's sort of the story for the Pirates in 2010. They have a bunch of young players, but nearly every one of them has questions.

Garrett Jones put up a .938 OPS in a half season's worth of playing time, but he's also a 29 year old former prospect who's drifted around the minors for a long time. He could be Ryan Ludwick, of course, but guys who play their rookie season close to 30 aren't always a great bet going forward. Jones also has positional questions, though what I've seen of him he looks just fine in the outfield. I am, however, basing that on seeing him catch about five fly balls.

Andy LaRoche is a former super prospect in the Dodgers' farm system who has found the major leagues rough going. His glove is still plenty solid, but his bat just hasn't ever developed as it was expected to. Overall, he's probably about league average, combining a 95 OPS+ with a glove that was worth a little over 5 runs by UZR in 2009. Certainly a useful player, but nothing earth-shattering. (Interestingly, +/- has him pegged as exactly a 5 run fielder as well; I believe it's the first time I've ever seen UZR and +/- have the exact same value for a player.)

Alvarez, as I mentioned before, has one of the best bats in the minors, but comes with a positional question. He plays third now, but he plays third sort of like Brett Wallace played third: as a short-term solution, at best. The path of least resistance would be to move Alvarez to first and leave LaRoche at third base, but it's tough to say what the Pirates will do. They could certainly send him down to the minors for just a little while and hold off free agency a season longer, much as the Rays did with Evan Longoria. Regardless, when Alvarez is ready, he'll probably move whoever is ahead of him.

Lastings Milledge is another former big time prospect, but remains better known for sexual assault allegations and bad rap music than anything he's done on the field.

Steven Pearce looked like a world-beater just a couple years ago, but has stagnated since. He also suffers from the same positional affliction as several other players, but a more virulent strain. Call it Mark Hamilton Syndrome.

The long and short of it is this: the Pirates have a fair number of interesting players, all of them with warts, and it's really impossible at the moment to see how they're going to fit together. First and foremost will likely be a decision on Alvarez. If he's in the majors, he's likely the everyday first baseman. If - and I think this is more likely - he's sent to the minors to begin the season, first base will probably be filled by a combination of several players until Alvarez is ready. Of course, they could also put him at third base, in which case LaRoche would become movable. (And worth checking into, in my ever so humble.)

There is one other really intriguing storyline to consider, and that's the role of Bobby Crosby on this team. A former rising star for Oakland early in his career, Crosby has since seen injuries and poor play derail his personal train. There isn't really a ton of competition for the shortstop spot, so Crosby could easily win the lion's share of playing time. I'm not projecting a career renaissance or anything, but I will be interested to see if Crosby can recapture any of his sparkle.

The most important thing to remember about the Pittsburgh Pirates' offense in 2010 is this: we won't have to play against Nyjer Morgan.

Starting Pitching

How many years has it been now since we first started hearing about the young pitching revolution of the Pirates? A decade? Longer? Well, okay, so probably just since about 2005 or so, when Zach Duke burst onto the scene and proceeded to make people who talk about peripherals look really dumb for about three months and then really smart for the ensuing four years.

Well, I'm here to tell you this: the revolution is not coming. What we've seen from the young turks of the Pirate staff is pretty much what we  are going to see as they become veteran turks, middle-aged turks, and finally old turks.

I will say this: the Pirate rotation should be fairly decent this year. Not great, not terrifying, but decent. Paul Maholm and Ross Ohlendorf are both plenty good, and I think Duke will prove to be a reliably league-averagish pitcher going forward. None of the three are really the sort of pitcher you want to see at the top of a rotation, but all three should provide plenty of innings at a reasonable level. Ohlendorf has the least track record of the three, but his superior stuff gives him a chance to be a tick better than either of the lefties, I believe.

One really intriguing storyline to watch this year as the Pirates fill out their rotation is what they decided to do with Brad Lincoln. A top pick in 2006, Lincoln's career hit a snag when Tommy John surgery forced him to miss all of 2007, but he pitched fairly well at two levels in 2008 as he came back, and really started to put himself back on the prospect map last year with a very strong Double A showing. He moved up to Triple A and his numbers took a hit, but Lincoln still looks like a very viable rotation option sometime in the 2010 season. Lincoln probably has better stuff than any of the Pirates' incumbents, with the possible exception of Ohlendorf (though I think Lincoln's breaking stuff is a bit better), and he has the potential to actually pitch toward the front of a major league rotation. Maybe not an ace, but a #2 ceiling guy. (Then again, maybe he isn't that much different from Ohlendorf...) He would probably be better served with a half season more in the minors, but if there's one thing the Pirates have proven, it's that there's no pitching prospect they won't rush.

As for the back end of the rotation, the Pirates will employ a variety of pitchers to fill in the last spot(s). Guys like Charlie Morton, Kevin Hart,  and maybe Bryan Morris will all get some innings, as well as any other NRI type guys Pittsburgh may bring in for spring training. There isn't a whole lot to like about this group, but then again, it is the 5th starter spot we're talking about.

Bullpen

I do think if the Pirates are going to have a chance of even approaching .500 this year (and I'm not saying they are, but I'm also not saying they aren't), it will likely be thanks to an improved bullpen from years past. There are actually some useful arms here, starting at the top with Octavio Dotel closing games. I've been a fan of Dotel since his salad days in Houston, and thought he would have made a fine addition to the Cardinals this season as a back-end reliever. (See, I'm trying to avoid the C word when speaking about our own team.) Dotel's health is always a question, but when he's able to take the mound, he's nasty. He should certainly represent an upgrade over the 2009 version of Matt Capps. Evan Meek showed a strong arm capable of getting a strikeout when needed. The Pirates brought in 39 year old Brendan Donnelly, who actually threw quite well for the Florida Marlins in limited duty last year. I don't expect much from him, but he should still be useful in a Russ Springery sort of way.

One of the more intriguing names in the Pirate bullpen could be Craig Hansen, the former Boston farmhand who was supposed to be Daniel Bard before Bard was. Hansen struggled with the transition to the majors and declining stuff until he was diagnosed last year with a nerve disorder that had weakened his trapezius muscle. There's no clear timetable for a return, but if he can come back in 2010 and is actually healthy, Hansen could be a wild card.

I honestly don't know enough about the Pittsburgh farm system to speak to whether there is any significant bullpen help on the way any time soon, so I'll refrain from speculating. Daniel Moskos is hanging around somewhere being developed as a starter, but I don't think that was going very well last I checked. Maybe he moves back to relief? I do know Donal Veal, the former Cubs' prospect, put together a very nice performance in the Arizona Fall League, showing signs of regaining some of his prospect lustre, but I don't know if the Pirates view him as a starter, reliever, bird, hare, or fish.

Offseason Priorities

 The Pirates are really a tough team to pin down to priorities for the offseason because so much of their team seems up in the air. The rotation is mostly set, with three solid starters and one solid prospect due to show up sometime this year, but the offense could end up with several different looks, depending on how certain moves shake out. As I said earlier, what the Pirates choose to do with Pedro Alvarez will likely make a huge impact on the rest of the team. The bullpen should be solid, I believe, and won't cost Pittsburgh many games. The Pirates did make a move to address one of their more glaring weaknesses, that of a stopper for the ends of games, but the question still remains: how valuable is a good closer if you don't give him leads to hold?

The Bottom Line

Pittsburgh is a team largely in flux, and extraordinarily hard to get a read on. That being said, they do have two of the more exciting young offensive talents in all of baseball (McCutchen and Alvarez), and both should be taking the field at PNC together sometime this season. They have a rotation that shouldn't kill them and a bullpen that should hold together. There's a ton of competition for a bunch of open spots, but at least there are some talented players to take part in those competitions.

Will this be the year the Pirates finally break their string of sub-.500 seasons? I'm going to say no. Give it one more year; they'll be pretty good in 2011, I think. But I also don't think they'll approach 100 losses again this year. There's too much talent on this team for them to be as bad as they were last year.

Then again, we are talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates, so all bets are off.

The Baron's Playlist for the 27th of January, 2010 - Covers to Learn and Sing

In honour of the recent late night cover song conversation.

"The Killing Moon" - Pavement

"Earth Angel" - Death Cab for Cutie

"For All we Know" - Bettie Serveert

"Don't Stop Believin'" - Petra Hayden

"Heartbreak Hotel" - John Cale

"Jealous Guy" - Roxy Music

"Jolene" - the White Stripes

"Rocket Man" - Kate Bush

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