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Pirates '09 Season Preview

The final installment of our NL Central season can also be a preview of the season’s opening series as it takes a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates.

  • ’08 record – 67-95
  • ‘08 Pythagorean record – 66-96
  • Runs per game – 4.54 (9th in NL; league average – 4.54 R/G)
  • Runs yielded per game – 5.46 (last in NL)
  • DER -- .676 – 13th in the NL (Defense Efficiency Ratio)
  • BP projected record – 64-98
  • Chone projected record – 73-89
  • Welcome: Donald Veal, Craig Monroe, Eric Hinske, Ramon Vazquez
  • Don’t let the door hit you…: Damaso Marte
Would any of you guessed that last year the Pirates had a league average offense? Me, neither. What about that their defense and pitching were among the worst in the game but that the only decent element to their team was their ability to score runs? I guess Nate McLouth and Jason Bay helped them quite a bit (before Bay was traded, of course).

Rotation: It was just a couple of years ago where the Pirates’ rotation was seen as a potential strength and last year it was positively awful – led by the collapse of Ian Snell. Snell was seen as an up and coming pitcher – posting 2 and 3.4 WAR in 2006 and 2007, respectively. Then last year, he fell down to 1.3 WAR as his FIP ballooned to 4.57. While his BABIP was inordinately high last year (.358) the main culprit was a walk rate that shot up by nearly 2 BB/9 – from 2.94 to 4.87. If he can get back to throwing strikes, he can be an effective pitcher again and provide some hope for the franchise. CHONE is more sanguine on Snell’s 09 than PECOTA is. The opening day starter will be Paul Maholm (2.7 WAR in 2008). Maholm had a ton of success in 2008 (4.15 FIP) largely b/c of his ability to throw strikes and get ground balls. Dave Duncan would love him. Plus, he’s a lefty! For my money, I’d rather have Snell due to the bigger upside but Maholm’s a nice pitcher to have in a rotation. The problem is that he’s really no better than a #3 and he’s their opening day starter.

Zach Duke, Ross Ohlendorf, and Jeff Karstens fill out the rotation. (Where have you gone, Tom Gorzelanny?) Duke threw 185 league average innings in 2008. He’s a Jeff Suppan, Braden Looper-like lefty – walks few, strikes few out, lotta ground balls – who’s serviceable in a rotation but, again, nowhere near a top-end guy. Like the others, Ohlendorf and Karstens don’t miss many bats and will be overly dependent on a porous Pirate defense in order to get people out.

Bullpen: Matt Capps is a nice guy to have pitching the 9th. I’m not sure he’s truly a close as, stop me if you’ve heard this before, he doesn’t miss many bats (6.71 career K/9) but he doesn’t walk anybody and, despite a GB/FB rate of 0.78 somehow manages to keep the ball in the ballpark. Tyler Yates was pretty good last year – despite yielding more than 5 BB/9 IP – and John Grabow is a serviceable lefty. Donald Veal was a nice pickup in the Rule 5 draft. I think the best they can hope for from their pen, however, is to be adequate.

Catcher: Ryan Doumit can hit. As a defender, well, he’s a good hitter. Last year he threw out just 18.1% of baserunners and I determined here that he actually cost the Pirates more than 7 runs defensively last season – worst in the NL. When he takes the gear off, he’s a good hitter and should hit in the middle of the Pirates’ order. He finished last season w/ an .858 OPS and a wOBA of .367. He’s w/o a doubt, one of the best hitting catchers in the NL and, perhaps, in all of baseball. Might we see him in St. Louis at the All-Star Game? His backup is rookie Jason Jaramillo.

Infield: The LaRoche brothers man the infield corners. Adam was a 1.7 WAR performer at 1B last year. He’s got a pretty good walk rate but strikes out far too frequently (24.8 % last year) and, despite pretty good power (25 HR in ’08) doesn’t provide that much to make him an above average player at his position. Maybe this is the year Andy finally becomes the player people have been expecting for years. A once-top prospect in the Dodgers’ organization, he arrived in the Manny – Jason Bay blockbuster last July and has really yet to make his mark w/ the Pirates. He has had a pretty good spring -- .924 OPS – but it’s spring training. Hopefully for the Buccos, Andy can become the player the Dodgers were hoping to get when he shot up through their farm system.

The middle infielders are Freddy Sanchez and former Cardinal farmhand Jack Wilson. An All-Star in 2006, Sanchez slid backward in 2007 and was simply awful last year (.292 wOBA). For most of his career he’s been a pretty good defensive player at the keystone but was slightly below average in 2008. He could help his pitching staff substantially by returning to being the defensive performer he was in ’07. Jack Wilson’s never had any trouble being a good defensive player. His offense, however, is simply awful and the Bucs have been trying for years to trade him and his high salary but have found no takers b/c Wilson’s offense is that bad. He also missed half of 2008 due to injury. He’d be about a league average SS b/c of his defense if he can find his way into 140+ games in ’09.

Outfield: Nate McLouth really came into his own as a hitter in 2008. He had a .369 wOBA and an ISO of .220. Considering his size (5’11", 180) you’d tend to think that was an aberration but, considering his previous ISOs (.193, .152, .201) maybe not. He’s a solid hitter who should hit 1st or 2nd in their order. Unfortunately he’s simply awful defensively and really belongs in LF. He gave back nearly 14 runs in the field last year which brought his overall worth down to 3.6 WAR. McLouth will be flanked by some combination of Nyjer Morgan, Eric Hinske, Craig Monroe and Brandon Moss. At some point this season, hopefully, Andrew McCutchen will take McLouth’s place in center and move McLouth to left. The supporting cast can all be decent pieces of platoons in right and left but will never be confused w/ league average performers. The real prize is McCutchen – the Pirates’ version of Colby Rasmus. Last year in AAA, he walked nearly as often as he struck out and has power and speed. Just 22, he only hit 9 HR last year and was CS 19 times but he’s a very good defensive player and probably could be close to a league average performer in CF right now due to his defense alone. Additionally, he would make McLouth more valuable by pushing him to LF.

As everyone knows, this organization hasn’t been to the playoffs since 1992 and they’re not going this year either. They have 16 consecutive losing seasons and it’s likely that 2009 will be their 17th in a row. Still, there are reasons for hope in Pittsburgh. Their new GM, Neal Huntington, seems to have things going in the right direction. McCutchen should become a fixture in Pittsburgh this year and ’08 draftee Pedro Alvarez shouldn’t be far behind (if they can find a taker for Adam LaRoche). Don’t get me wrong, this team’s more than a year or two away but, after faltering for the better part of 2 decades, there’s reason to believe that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t actually the headlamp of an oncoming train.