Insanity, according to Albert Einstein, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. As an organization, the Pittsburgh Pirates, well, they must be plumb crazy right about now. For the last 18 seasons, the Pirates, more or less, have run the same nondescript ballplayers out on the field day after day, year after year. And for 18 seasons, the losing has continued.
Sure, there’s been a smattering of good ballplayers along the way, but those have come far and few between. For every Jason Kendall drafted there have been 10 or so first-round busts. And, likewise, for every Brian Giles or Jack Wilson swindle the organization has given away the likes of Jose Guillen, Jason Schmidt, Damaso Marte, and Aramis Ramirez. Clearly, this has been an organization in trouble for quite some time. Until now. Right?
Entering the All-Star break, the Pirates stand on unfamiliar ground, namely, winning. Ninety games into the 2011 season, they are a surprising 47-43, four games over .500 and, more importantly, one game out of first place. The losing was eventually going to stop, after all nothing can last forever; but did anyone really see it coming to end this season?
See, the Pirates just haven’t been run-of-the-mill bad. No, they’ve been epically bad. The organization’s winning percentage has been .430 (1223 wins and 1623 losses) from the start of the 1993 season till the end of 2010, exactly 400 wins below .500. And with the franchise coming off 94+ losses for the sixth-consecutive season, no one, not even Einstein himself, could have predicted the Pirates’ success this season. At first glance, it seems that the perennial rebuilding effort is finally near completion.
Pitching, not hitting has been the name of the game for them this season. The staff has posted the eighth best ERA in all of baseball, 3.47; while the hitting has scored the seventh fewest runs, 345.
The rotation, lead by reclamation project Charlie Morton, has been nothing short of solid, if not occasionally spectacular. But the team’s real strength has been its bullpen. Led by closer Joel Hanrahan, the team’s five most used relievers – Hanrahan, Daniel McCutchen, Jose Veras, Chris Resop, and Daniel Moskos – all have ERAs lower than 3.40, and have posted a combined 2.5 K/BB ratio.
As good as the pitching has been, the hitting, however, has been just as bad. Outside of Andrew McCutchen, one the game’s brightest young stars, the offense has been ordinary, at best.
Among all first basemen with 300+ plate appearances, Lyle Overbay has posted the third worst wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus), 86. And starting shortstop Ronny Cedeno has been even worse, 73. The team’s offensive punch has also been hurt by a few key injuries. Third baseman Pedro Alvarez has been on the DL for almost two months with a lingering leg injury, but he is expected back soon after the All-Star break. Jose Tabata suffered a left quad strain and has been out of commission since June 27; and Ryan Doumit, the team’s veteran catcher, last played May 29 because of an ankle injury. Tabata is expected back mid-July, and Doumit around the trading deadline, if everything goes as expected.
Despite the lack of firepower, the team has stayed afloat through good starting pitching and even better relief work. And if the offense can continue to tread water for the time being, it should get quite a boost from the returns of Alvarez, Tabata, and Doumit.
With the trade deadline rapidly approaching, the front office, before making any future moves, must closely examine where the team is on the rebuilding schedule, because the immediate future doesn’t look as rosy as the present.
Call it smoke and mirrors, luck, or something of the like, but the Pirates shouldn’t be anywhere near first place, not with their roster, not with their pitching staff.
Beginning with the rotation, four of the team’s five starters average less than 5.6 K/9, and two of them, Paul Maholm and Morton, couple those low strikeout rates with terrible walk rates, 3.11 and 3.53 respectively. And James McDonald, despite striking out more than seven hitters every nine innings, walks more than 4½ a game. Staff ERA leader Jeff Karstens, simply put, has been extraordinary lucky. His strand rate, 87.6 percent, is absolutely unsustainable, and his FIP (Field Independent Pitching), 4.66, is more than 2 runs higher than his ERA. Last but not least, Kevin Correia. Correia has been the quintessential middle-of-the-rotation filler. He doesn’t strikeout many guys, 4.59 K/9, but he doesn’t walk many either, 2.02.
But the problem is simple: For a perpetually rebuilding team, where the hell is its youth? All five starters, whose ages range between 26 and 30, have limited ceilings, somewhere around the middle to backend of a rotation, and only two – Morton and McDonald – really fit into any type of rebuilding effort.
Next season Maholm and Correia will be 30 and 31, respectively. And Jeff Karstens will join the Club 30 the following year. Hmm…
Now for the ’pen. Oh, boy!
It’s the same game, only the names have changed. Jose Veras, 30. Chris Resop, 28. Joel Hanrahan, 29. Daniel McCutchen, 28. Daniel Moskos, 25. In fact, the team hasn’t run one pitcher out to the mound under the age of 25. Not a single one.
Look, this isn’t to stay that these aren’t useful, if not valuable pitchers, because they are. Veras has averaged almost one strikeout an inning in his career, but he’s also walked more than a batter every other inning. Resop is certainly enjoying a breakout year, as are Hanrahan and McCutchen. And Moskos is trying to shake the first round label bust. But the point remains simple: Are these guys the type of guys who can perform at this level for the next 2, maybe 3 years? Perhaps, but it’s not at all likely.
Yes, the pitching staff has performed great. But outside of three, maybe four pitchers, these are not rebuilding ballplayers. These are pitchers to surround a young, rebuilding staff. Period.
The offense, unlike the pitching staff, has some time on its side.
Four of the offense’s top hitters – McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata – are all 25-years-old or younger. Age-wise, this is what a rebuilding team is supposed to look like. But not unlike the hurlers, three of the four youngsters have serious questions to answer.
McCutchen is the anomaly of the bunch. He’s young, 24, athletic, and reminiscent of Cleveland’s Grady Sizemore at the same age. Simply, McCutchen is a difference-maker, a franchise player. He is the type of player Pittsburgh envisioned Alvarez would become.
Drafted out of Rice with the second pick in the 2008 draft, Alvarez was supposed to be a cornerstone. Right now, he’s not, and there’s good reason to believe that he may never be. One reason: lefties. During his first year+ of MLB service, he’s managed to hit .226/.308/.643 against southpaws. Alvarez is a lefty. Lefties that can’t hit lefties are platoon players, not franchise players. He’s still young enough, 24, and talented enough, but those numbers are scary –especially for a polished college player.
Walker, a former first-round pick, is a catcher-turned-third baseman-turned-second baseman. But it’s apparent that his ceiling is limited, as well. He’s gritty, a hometown boy who shows flashes of pop, but struggles with the strike zone and is still learning the nuances of the keystone. Basically, he’s been a slightly better than the average Major League hitter and a below average fielder.
Now, Jose Tabata.
Tabata’s a little more difficult to peg because, well, his age. He’s listed as 22, but there has been more than a question or two into the legitimacy of that number. Regardless if he’s 22, 25, or 32, the other baseball numbers won’t lie. He’s consistently shown strong contact rates, above-average speed and base running ability, a good eye at the plate, and no power whatsoever. None. Zilch. Zero. He’s a good No. 2 or bottom third of the lineup hitter. But his absolute lack of power – he’s posted an ISO of .097 in 738 MLB PA – definitely limits his ceiling.
So, to recap, the Major League roster has one franchise player, McCutchen, two other hitters who have been slightly better than the league average, one other hitter who can’t hit lefties, and three late 20s pitchers with limited ceilings.
OK, well, that’s not so bad as long as the farm system is ready to bring up a couple more young, impact players, right? In theory, yes. In the case of the Pittsburgh Pirates, no.
For an organization that has been so bad for so long the farm system should be burping up good prospects like Babe Ruth after a few beers and a handful of hotdogs. Alas, they won’t, at least for a few more seasons. Sure, there are a couple really good, really young arms, but Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie, Luis Heredia, and Co. are a minimum of three seasons away, at least. Though Gerrit Cole, this year’s number one pick, has ace potential, could help as soon as next year.
But, again, the truth is simple: Despite having a high pick year after year, the organization has simply opted to draft based on signability, not on talent. This trend only recently reversed in 2010. Now, the farm system has had a serious influx of talent within the last two years, but most of them, the overwhelming majority, are still two, probably three, and maybe as far as 4 years away. Then, by that time, the few young players the team has on the roster will be near thirty, expensive, and they will have to wait for the young prospects to develop at the MLB level.
So, it all comes down to this: What should the team do this trade deadline? Do they sell off the veterans they have, even though GM Neal Huntington hasn’t had the best track record? Or do they buy players to help them break the 18-year losing streak?
It all depends on the type of answer you’re looking for – the easy or difficult choice?
The easy choice is to buy. Everyone knows how bad the fans need this team to be north of 81 wins.
The hard choice is based on one thing: The job security of GM Neal Huntington. See, can anyone really expect the Pirates to hang around the Brewers, Cardinals – at some point Albert Pujols is going to hit – and the Reds? Yes, they’ve done it for 90 games, but there are still 70 games to play. That’s a lot of baseball. They play playoff contenders in 45 of those remaining games, including the Brewers, Reds and Cardinals a combined 32 times. The Pirates are going to fade. And the hard choice would be flipping the club’s veterans for some more prospects. But the team’s depth is the bullpen, and there’s supposed to be a glut of relievers available. So that complicates matters.
Hanrahan and Correia could probably fetch the most. Resop could step into the closer’s role, and it’s time to figure out if 23-year-old Jeff Locke can hold his own in the rotation.
Money, though, should be put on the Pirates buying, and the team still falling short of 82 wins. The tossup comes down to the fans, they need it. It’s not the right choice because this year’s winning should prove to be nothing more than an aberration, but it’s the choice most businesses would make. Well, unless Branch Rickey was running that business.