Wednesday, August 19, 2009

AFTER TWO COMPLETE ROSTERS DURING ONE MIND-BOGGLING SEASON, WHAT DIRECTION ARE PIRATES HEADED IN NOW?





ABOVE: "Captain Hook" used a compass like this. Today we make due with our own "Captain Hook", Neal Huntington. He seems to have a compass and it appears to be working.

Now that the dust has settled, it's time to take a look at the new piece of clay that John Russell and his staff have to work with. To be sure, there are going to be plenty of days between now and the end of the season where loyal Pirate fans will be secretly longing for the Steelers opener. Then there will be games like last night's victory over Milwaukee where the team will show signs of its' potential.

But for those baseball savvy people, they know that the Pirates have already entered extended spring training for next season. Rather than having to rely on games played in the spring against minor league players on many occasions, the Pirates get to see how their own talent can perform now against top level competition and against teams that may still even be in the pennant hunt.

By remaking the Pirates roster so completely, Neal Huntington has actually expedited the team's development. They'll take their lumps this year, but most importantly, they'll know where they have to focus their efforts in the offseason and which players look like they can fit in.

I thought it would be fun to look at the team position-by-position and evaluate whether next year's team will be an improvement or will further backslide into the 17 year abyss.

OUTFIELD

The Pirates started an outfield of Nyjer Morgan in left, Nate McLouth in center and Brandon Moss in right. Today we're starting Lastings Milledge in left (some defensive problems) Andrew McCutchen in Center (the most exciting prospect in 20 years) and Garrett Jones in right (a minor league signing who has been a bonanza so far). While I would have liked to have seen Nate McLouth play right field, it would have been pretty tough to keep Garrett Jones out of the lineup.

True, pitcher Charlie Morton (obtained in the McLouth trade) has to get his head straight, but he has a tremendous arsenal of tools once he can get settled down. This trade looks like a potential winner, if for no other reason that it got McCutchen onto the big league roster everyday. This kid is flat out amazing and who knows what even loftier level he can elevate his game? OVERALL: Already a "plus" at this early stage.

INFIELD

Andy LaRoche, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and Adam LaRoche gave the Pirates a strong defensive infield. Compare this to Andy LaRoche (an obvious "push" but he's improving every day) Ronny Cedeno (surprisingly a plus because of his better hitting) Delwyn Young (a minor edge to Sanchez) and Steve Pearce (very strong defensively with a strong chance to improve at the plate given constant playing time). I'd say that given time to season that this infield could do very well. It certainly won't be an embarassment and will save the team untold millions less in salary. Cedeno has looked terrific and Young has brought his bat to every ballgame. He just needs some additional work learning the pivot at second. He has certainly not been an embarrassment at second even in the early going.

Other than a couple wild throws, Steve Pearce has played almost as well defensively as Adam LaRoche. I still remain confident that he'll zone in with his hitting as he gets more at bats.

OVERALL: A "push" right now (which is amazing) considering the weeping and gnashing of teeth that went on here a few weeks ago.

CATCHERS

Doumit and Jaramillo will open next season with the Bucs, but don't get real attached to Ryan Doumit. The Pirates have another wunderkind catcher in Tony Sanchez. He's a ways off yet, but potentially could have a chance at the big club by late 2011. OVERALL: A push, but Jaramillo gained some valuable experience while subbing for the oft- injured Doumit.

PITCHERS

The Pirates started this season with a lineup of Maholm, Snell, Duke, Karstens and Ohlendorf. Today's rotation is Maholm (PUSH) Duke (PUSH) Charlie Morton (a big plus over Snell) Ohlendorf (PUSH) and Kevin Hart (will prove to be a big plus also over Karstens). While Karstens seems to have found a good niche in long relief, the starting pitching as a whole looks much more stable. Lurking at Triple A is Brad Lincoln. OVERALL: I like the makeup of this staff. Even better, I love the prospects that we have acquired for the minors.

BULLPEN

This is where things start getting real shaky. The Bucs traded John Grabow, a great setup man, and so far haven't found a replacement for his role. Evan Meek could potentially be that pitcher and was making great progress until his recent oblique muscle injury put him down for a month. Joel Hanrahan is a hard thrower who can't find the strike zone...not a good combination for late relief. Meanwhile, Matt Capps continues to struggle through an erratic season. Jesse Chavez has performed nicely but he is another right handed arm in a bullpen bereft of lefties.

OVERALL: Minus.As of today, this bullpen needs to take several steps up if it will be able to surpass bullpens of the past couple seasons. Expect more changes here in the off season.


ABOVE: The Pirates talked about having a Pirate ship floating outside of PNC Park when they were in the planning stages, but they never did it.. They could turn it into a giant souvenir stand and sell ball park hot dogs and nachos year round. They could also fire the cannons when the Pirates hit a home run. Sounds like a winner to me!

So your scoreboard looks like this: Outfield +, Infield Push, Catchers Push, Starting pitching +, Bullpen --. So even at this early stage in the team's development, I'm rating them as overall slightly better in talent level yet about $15 million less expensive. Meanwhile the minor league system has more prospects than its' had in decades.

Right now the team is lacking major league experience (at an average of 26 years it's the youngest in the league) and should benefit greatly simply by performing every day as a unit. But while they're losing games this year, they'll also be positioning themselves for a shot at Bryce Harper, the greatest talent to come along in decades.

If the team continues to channel the saved major league level dollars into good draft choices as they have been, this will eventually give the Pirates one of the strongest minor league farm systems in all of baseball. This constant flow of new talent to the big club should provide this team with the necessary fuel to be competitive without breaking the bank to get it. I firmly believe that if the Pirates are going to compete that this is will be the most consistent way to do so over the long haul.

Of course, skepticism runs rampant, especially when you've lost for 17 straight years, but looking on the optimistic side, we have defeated the Brewers three straight and finally.... finally there appears to be a sound game plan in place for the entire organization.

ABOVE: Neal Huntington has played the role of "Captain Hook" exceptionally.