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The Pittsburgh Pirates and 2011

I have nothing interesting to say about a game in which Matt Pagnozzi goes 3-4 and Dennys Reyes picks up the win, nothing at all, so I feel kind of relieved that I planned even beforehand on using this space to talk about the Pittsburgh Pirates, who are edging extremely slowly toward relevance.

They did a fine job of setting it up for me: Andrew McCutchen was 2-4, Jose Tabata 2-5, Neil Walker drove in a run, Pedro Alvarez beat the stuffing out of Kyle Lohse

McCutchen is the veteran of the group, having played 255 Major League games, and there's not much to dislike about him, although the PBP metrics are not fans of his defense at all. He gets on base; he hits for more power than you'd think, given his size and the "type" of speedy center fielder into which he's sorted; he's stolen 54 bases in 69 tries, so that speed, which really is remarkable, is being put to offensive use. He's a fine starter now, but at 23 I can see him continuing to develop from here.

Pedro Alvarez is probably not a third baseman, but he's got 35 doubles and 27 home runs across two levels this season, so I don't think the Pirates are particularly concerned about that. (The decision to push him to first would have been a lot easier if Andy LaRoche hadn't gone from Dodgers Superprospect to Pirates suspect quite so abruptly; that wrist injury took a lot out of the guy who hit .285/.372/.517 across the minor leagues.)

From there things get murkier; like LaRoche, the other two useful kids in the Pirates lineup, Tabata and Neil Walker, came into this season—and leave it—with a lot of things unclear and uncertain. Things have broken in the Pirates' direction with them this year, but I couldn't begin to tell you what that means for 2011. 

Walker spent three or four years, starting in 2004, as the Pirates' top prospect by default, and they did their Pirates best to mess things up. Originally an offensive-minded catcher, the Pirates sent him hurtling through the system even though he'd done little to prove his offensive or defensive readiness—a .301/.332/.452 jaunt in the Sally League was enough to send him to the high-A Carolina League at 20, where his .284/.345/.409 line got him briefly promoted to AA.

That 5-32 stint in AA was enough for him to spend the entire season there at 21, in 2007—as he was being made to learn third base. So by the time he made his AAA debut, in 2008, he was a poor defensive third baseman who, even as a top prospect, had never hit all that well for a third baseman. After his .242/.280/.414 year there I'd pretty much written him off.

But he's had an extraordinary 2010, without me realizing it—the Pirates in their infinite wisdom decided that the solution to Walker's slow-onset irrelevance was to move him further up the defensive spectrum, to second base. And he responded by killing the ball for 43 games in AAA, getting called up in late May, and then continuing to hit better than he had at any minor league stop in his career. At the moment he's like Skip Schumaker with power; he probably isn't a second baseman, but he hits well enough to stand there.

Walker was always a top prospect and never given time to put up top prospect numbers, so it's plausible that he's actually this kind of player now. But it's hard to overstate how out of place this season looks among his career numbers. 

Jose Tabata's story is less depressingly Pittsburgh Pirates and more bizarre. Nobody's quite sure if Jose Tabata is 21, and he is the kind of player for which that is extremely important. His skills include being fast, but not extremely fast; hitting for a high average, but not an especially high average; and being young for his level, which allows us to assume that the average or the speed or what might charitably be described as doubles power will grow as he does. He is exceptional at being young and adequate. 

Nobody's quite sure if Jose Tabata is 21 because the Pirates have said they have reasons to doubt his age, but not necessarily that they doubt his age, which is an odd way of dealing with the question. In fact, Neal Huntington has been incredibly sanguine about the prospect of Tabata being 25, and I have no idea why; he's exactly the kind of prospect who is no longer a prospect when the whiteout rubs off of his birth certificate. If it had come out that Albert Pujols was 25 after 2001, he's already Albert Pujols; right now Tabata is a third-and-a-half outfielder who might eventually become Jose Tabata. So that aroused some suspicion.

Oh, and there's also the thing about his wife, who is 45, getting herself in the news by abducting a baby and telling our intrepid prospect that said baby, two months old at the time, was his. Apparently she had given birth off-screen. (That Tabata believed that this two-month-old he'd never seen was his daughter is perhaps the best evidence we have that he's 21.)

If the Cincinnati Reds have become the new trendy contender of choice, usurping the Rays, the Pirates are maybe two years into that particular five-year plan, and unlikely to complete it as early as Stalin liked. They've got some players who appear to have a good shot at becoming above average and cheap, and in Alvarez and McCutchen they've got two shots at developing a bona fide star.

What they need now, before they complete the Jocketty plan by acquiring a bunch of inexplicably over-achieving thirtysomethings, is depth—the Pirates are, even at their best, an injury away from replacement level at almost every position. In a few places they're there already.

They're not ready to compete with the Cardinals unless something has gone terribly wrong, but as far as 101-loss teams go they're kind of exciting.