Well, I've been promising (or threatening, as the case may be) to do this for the past few days, so what better to do with a Saturday night at home then preview what is sure to be another stellar season for your Pittsburgh Pirates. Okay, maybe there's like, several dozens other things I'd rather be doing, but it's better than watching the Final Four.
If you've come here looking for optimism, you've come to the wrong place. I'll save my official win-loss prediction for the end, but suffice to say, it ain't gonna be pretty. So, let's get it on!
Disclaimer: If you're expecting to see lots of regurgitated stats and such, then you're in the wrong place. This is strictly my opinion and that comes from what I've seen with my own two eyes. Stats are useful, but if you want them, I suggest MLB.com or some other sports site.
The cornerstone of the Jack Wilson trade to Seattle last year was a AAA catcher named Jeff Clement. If you haven't heard of him, you're not alone. He supposedly has a good bat and is ready for the majors in that regard (or so the Pirates' brass claims). The problem? He hasn't ever played first base in the majors and barely in the minors. So, instead of just sticking with Garrett Jones at first and putting Ryan Church in right field, the Buccos are throwing Clement to the wolves by just giving him the first base job with no seasoning in AAA. Say what you will about ex-Pirate Adam Laroche, but he was a Gold Glove caliber first baseman. Clement? Well, there was a foul pop in last night's game against the Phillies that I've seen little leaguers play better. Translation? The errant throws that Laroche saved from going into the stands last year will more than likely end up as throwing errors because Clement can't scoop them. I sure hope he can hit because he's going to be a serious liability on defense.
The Pirates acquired Aki Iwamura from the Tampa Rays in the offseason for reliever Jesse Chavez. Iwamura was part of the Rays' improbable run to the World Series two seasons ago and is, by all accounts, a solid Major League player. For some reason, Pirates manager John Russell (aka Ambien JR - h/t Mike Pavlik) has him leading off, even though he's probably better suited to the two spot and strikes out a lot. I'm sure he'll be adequate defensively, with a similar range to Freddy Sanchez (which is to say, not much range at all). I expect Aki will be dealt to a contended at the trade deadline with Andy Laroche moving to second (more on that in a bit).
Ronny Cedeno (also part of the Jack Wilson trade) and Bobby Crosby (former A.L. Rookie of the Year with Oakland) will probably split time, with whoever sucks less getting the bulk of the playing time. If (and it's a big if) Crosby can magically regain his former Rookie of the Year form, then with his power, he could be a serious upgrade at shortstop. Not really sure about his defense, but it can't be as good as Jack Wilson's was. As for Cedeno, his bat has a bit of a pop, and he'll make some spectacular plays in the field. The problem? He'll occasionally boot a groundball right at him. Needless to say, the Pirates' defense will be no where near as good as it was last year, when it was near the top in the N.L. Honestly, I think the Pirates would be better off if they could get Sidney Crosby at short. At least he's been known to score now and then.
Andy Laroche is the incumbent at the hot corner but is only keeping it warm until 2008 first round pick Pedro Alvarez is ready to take over. Laroche came on slightly at the end of last season and has had a decent spring. Honestly, he's the least of the Pirates' myriad problems. I expect he'll hit about .260 with 12-15 homers and play average (if unspectacular) defense. He'll be much better suited to second base once Alvarez arrives.
The oft-injured Ryan Doumit returns for another season, one of the few players not traded last season. Last season, Doumit broke the scaphoid bone in his wrist and missed more than 2 months. It's a very important bone and, per Wikipedia "it is relatively difficult to break." Unless you're Ryan Doumit, that is. After he came back from injury, he was a big time malcontent and was just awful, both offensively and defensively. I expect Doumit and his burdensome contract will be traded some time this year, opening the door for... Oh wait, the Pirates don't have anybody waiting in the wings.
Well, there is 2009 first round draft pick Tony Sanchez who, by all accounts, had a great first year in pro ball, but Sanchez (who played college ball, so it's not like he was drafted right out of high school) is starting the year in Single A Bradenton and probably won't get a sniff of the majors until 2012... at the earliest. Y'see, the Pirates love to baby their big time prospects to the point of hilarity. If Pens winger Jordan Staal were playing for the Pirates, he'd be stuck in ECHL Wheeling. At the very least, Sanchez should be the starting catcher for Double A Altoona.
Lastings Milledge, another former first round pick who washed out with the Mets and Nats is your started. He did okay after being acquired by the Pirates last year, but I was a big fan of the man he was traded for, Nyjer Morgan. I never really got the trade, but I will agree that Milledge does have a ton of potential. He's good friends with Andrew McCutchen, so maybe that'll be a help. Milledge had better show a bit more power than he did last year and a bit more speed. Otherwise, the lack of power and speed in left is going to be a glaring weakness for a team that's going to struggle to score runs.
Andrew McCutchen is entering his first full season in the big leagues and is already the Pirates' best player. He had a great rookie season, and I expect big things from him this year. He has slightly above average power, plays a great centerfield and can legitimately steal 30 bases (if Ambien JR lets him, that is). Cutch also doesn't come off like a primadonna, so I expect him to develop into a leader before long, too. Keep an eye on Cutch - I suspect he'll have his fair share of Web Gems on Baseball Tonight this year.
Rookie phenom Garrett Jones (aka The Legend) will get the bulk of the playing time in right with Ryan Church and Delwyn Young spelling him. Jones hit 20 homers in half a season last year, but most of them were solo homers. On the one hand, you can blame the team for not getting on base before he came up. On the other hand, you can blame Jones for not hitting well with runners on base. Whatever the case, if Jones hits 20 homers for the entire season, I'll be shocked. I also don't expect much of him defensively, but right field is the easiest outfield position to play at PNC Park, so hopefully he won't be exposed too much. I think he'd be better off at first, but what do I know?
Delwyn Young provides a good stick off the bench and can play second or right field. He's a good pinch hitter, but when he had to play every day last season, he really broke down. Jason Jaramillo figures to be the back-up catcher and will probably play lots on Sundays. Ryan Church provides a veteran bat off the bench and will undoubtedly end up as a starter if the Jeff Clement experiment fails (as I expect it to). As of this writing, Steve Pearce and Rule 5 pick John Raynor were battling it out for the final bench spot and for the right to pinch hit twice a week. The bench doesn't stink, but there's really no one I think is all that reliable except maybe Young.
Your five starters: Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton and Daniel McCutchen. Not exactly the 1971 Baltimore Orioles, is it?
When Duke is on, he's a very good pitcher, but the Pirates gave him some of the worst run support in the majors last year and Duke's record suffered because of it. Maholm has proven to be a very solid Major League pitcher. He battled through injuries last year and had a down season because of it. A bounce-back season would be nice. Ohlendorf had a great second half last year, with an ERA in the top 10 after the All-Star Break. He was pitching coach Joe Kerrigan's pet project last year and has a ton of upside. The problem? Almost every year after a Pirates pitcher shows some promise, he takes a step or two back the next year. So, don't be shocked if Ohlendorf does the same this year. Morton has great stuff (one of the best curveballs I've seen in years). His problem is between the ears. If he can get the mental part of his game down, he could win 12-15 games. If not, look for an ERA in the 5s. McCutchen won the fifth starters job by default after the favorite to win the job, Kevin Hart, had quite possibly the worst spring imaginable. He couldn't find the plate with a GPS and will start the season in Triple A.
I've seen worse rotations, but outside of career years from every starters, I can't see double digit wins from any more than 2/5 of the rotation. The potential is there, but I reserve the right to remain skeptical.
The key word for the bullpen is "journeyman." There is not one homegrown reliever in the pen. Octavio Dotel was signed to be the closer and should be better than Matt Capps who gave many Pirates fans ulcers with his "closing" last season. Brendan Donnelly and Joel Hanrahan (insert Slapshot joke here) will be the primary setup men with DJ Carrasco, Evan Meek and Hayden Penn as your righties and Javier Lopez and Jack Taschner as your lefties.
It's not a great bullpen, but it's not a terrible one, either. Expect to see a lot of them this year if the starters struggle as I expect they will.
The Bottom Line
I look up and down this lineup and wonder where the runs are going to come from. This team will struggle to score 4 runs a game, and for a team that is often losing before it even comes to bat, that's a problem. The pitchers have to be better. The starters have to keep the team within striking distance, and the bullpen has to hold leads when given them.
The Pirates are going to have to play small ball and manufacture some runs (tm Joe Morgan). They will not hit a lot of home runs, even if The Legend has a season like he did last year. They're going to have to do the little things - get runners over with productive outs, be smart on the bases and not get thrown out so much (I'm looking at you third base coach Tony Beasley), and most of all, not strike out so damned much.
If they do those things, then maybe 70-72 wins isn't out of the question, but as I said at the beginning, if you came here looking for optimism, you've come to the wrong place.
John Russell is just not a good manager and barely shows he has a pulse most of the time. GM Neal Huntington has made so very questionable trades over the past two seasons. I expect one if not both to be fired if the Pirates stink up America's Best Ballpark like pretty much everyone thinks they will.
Until the Pirates actually start to spend some money and stop whining about being a small market team, they're going to suck - period. Bob Nutting will continue to make money even before the Pirates set foot on the field and ignore any and all attempts entreaties to sell the team to someone who might actually, y'know, spend some money and not just throw it all into the minor leagues and facilities in the Dominican Republic. And until that happens (if it ever does), the Pirates will continue to be the laughingstock of the Major Leagues.
Prediction: 61-101 - last in the National League Central.
Well, there you have it. I sincerely hope I'm wrong, but I somehow doubt I am. Anyway, Opening Day is Monday. For all of you baseball fans out there, hope springs eternal, unless you live in Pittsburgh, that is.