2009 Pittsburgh Pirates: Compete Again in 2010?

BaseballEvolution.com Spring Preview
by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
March 22, 2009

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Jason Jaramillo C
Craig Monroe CF
Eric Hinske Util
Ramon Vazquez IF
Donald Veal RP
Virgil Vasquez SP
Departed Pos.
Jason Michaels CF
Doug Mientkiewicz 1B/3B
Ronnie Paulino C
Luis Rivas IF
Chris Gomez IF

The 2009 Pirates are going to make history.  Nothing can stop them.  This team of destiny is going to sport a losing record for the 17th consecutive season, the most ever for a major league franchise.

But you already knew that.  The real news is that there is actually a good chance that the streak will end before it hits 20.

A lot of money in ill-advised contracts should be coming off the books in 2010, plus the Pirates actually have some promising youngsters now signed to seemingly reasonable deals.  General manager Neal Huntington has held his position for a year-and-a-half now without doing something bafflingly stupid, which is something the last two permanent Pirates general managers cannot claim.  Things are finally looking up for this organization, but they will need to suffer through at least one more season of horrors before they can see out of their ditch.

You wish that Ryan Doumit would take a few more pitches and you wish that he would throw out a few more baserunners, but it's hard to argue with a catcher who can hit .318 and slug over .500.  He is locked up through 2011 with club options for the 2012 and 2013 seasons.  The real worry this year is backup Jason Jaramillo's .727 minor league OPS (or Robinson Diaz at .729) should something happen to Doumit.

Ryan Doumit

At first base, Adam LaRoche has firmly established himself as a second-half performer, with his career OPS at .771 before the All-Star break and .907 thereafter.  This is bad news for the Pirates.  They are paying LaRoche $7 million in his final season before free agency, and you can bet that they will want to move him at the trade deadline.  But who is going to want a first baseman with a .771 OPS at the deadline?  Some team is going to acquire him for marginal prospects and be very pleased with the transaction.

The Pirates have an $8 million option on Freddy Sanchez that vests if he reaches 635 plate appearances or 600 plate appearances plus an All-Star selection.  Expect the Pirates to rest Sanchez at second base with utility infielder Ramon Vasquez in order to keep Sanchez marketable at the deadline (meaning the team he goes to will still be able to use him freely without vesting that contract) and serendipitously get at-bats for the superior player as a result.

Pos '08 '09
C Doumit Doumit
1B Ad. LaRoche LaRoche
2B Phillips Phillips
3B J Bautista An. LaRoche
SS J Wilson J Wilson
LF Bay N Morgan
CF McLouth McLouth
RF Nady Moss

Jack Wilson is still one of the best defenders in the game at shortstop, and every so often he has an uncharacteristically good year at the plate.  If he has one of those years in 2009, the Pirates may be tempted to exercise his $8.4 million option for 2010.  Don't do it, Huntington.  Wilson will be 32 that year, and most shortstops lose a step defensively around that age.  The only shortstop prospect of note in the organization is 19-years old (Jarek Cunningham), so this will have to be a position addressed via free agency or trade.

The trade that took Jason Bay away from Pittsburgh and brought Andy LaRoche to third base is despised by most Pirate fans due to Andy's horrid showing last year.  It's hard to blame them; the man had an OPS of .459 with the Buccos.   But LaRoche is 25-years old and has a minor league OPS of .897, so there's definitely still hope for the future here.  If he doesn't make it, his successor will likely be Pedro Alvarez, whom fans may despise for his Boras-induced extortion even if he develops into a better hitter than Aramis Ramirez.

Disappointment Candidate
Nate McLouth
See Redman, Tike; Duffy, Chris; and Brown, Adrian for Pirate one-year wonder CFers
Comeback Candidate
Ian Snell
His slider is sublime, but he throws it a bit too often

The Pirate outfield looks pretty threadbare this year, but could be among the best in baseball in a few seasons.  Of course, Nate McLouth is good right now, the questions are whether he will be A) still good in 2011 when he is making $6.5 M and B) willing to move to right field for Andrew McCutcheon despite having won an undeserved Gold Glove Award in centerfield.  McLouth had an .899 OPS before the break and .781 after, though a .279 BABIP before and .309 after.  McCutcheon and Jose Tabata's minor league stats aren't great, but each of them has been very young for their levels.

'08 '09
Michaels Monroe
Mientkiewicz Hinske
Rivas Vazquez
Gomez Pearce

Current corner outfielders Brandon Moss and Nyjer Morgan are barely serviceable as stopgaps.  Steve Pearce, who was putting up terrific minor league numbers before a poor 2008 season, could easily grab one of those spots this year with a rebound performance.  Going forward, an outfield of Pearce, McCutcheon, McLouth, and/or Tabata is going to be tough to beat.

At present, the Pirate bench looks better than it normally does.  The Rays wouldn't have won the AL East without Eric Hinske last year.  He backs up all four corner positions and provides a solid left-handed bat off the bench.  Craig Monroe, unlike McLouth, provides solid defense in center, and was slugging .755 (6 HR in 49 AB) through March 22.  Ramon Vasquez enters the season as a super-sub, but will almost certainly take over full-time at a middle infield position once Sanchez and/or Wilson is traded.  None of these guys is a star, but none of them broke the bank, either.

Pirates Team Capsule

Ian Snell

Starting pitching was supposed to be the strength of the Pirates going into 2008, and instead it was their Achilles' heel, as their 5.36 starter's ERA was the worst in the NL.  It went completely topsy-turvy, as the supposed weak link in the rotation, Paul Maholm, wound up as the clear ace.  Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny could not repeat their success form 2007 and Zach Duke could not re-discover the magic from way back in 2005. 

This year, Gorzelanny begins the season in the minors while Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens fill out the bottom of the rotation.  Ohlendorf is a big sinkerballer who might do well with Jack Wilson behind him and Karstens is a finesse guy who needs to be perfect to succeed.  Maholm isn't as good as he appeared last year, but don't expect a full-on Gorzelanny implosion for him.  Snell was unlucky and rattled last year and figures to rebound.  Duke issues hits more freely than Obama issues bailout money, which is baffling because his sinker/curveball combo is so good.  A resurgence from Duke would be unexpected, but not out of the question.

Going forward, the rotation is what will need the most bolstering.  Bryan Morris, the sleeper key to the Jason Bay trade, is the most promising pitcher on the horizon, and he had Tommy John surgery in 2007.  As comprised, the rotation needs way too much to go right in order to succeed.  The other option would be to seriously emphasize defense and go with the Jeff Karstens/Daniel McCutcheon/Virgil Vasquez put-the-ball-in-play-and-pray types.       

Pos '08 '09
SP Maholm Maholm
SP Duke Duke
SP Snell Snell
SP Gorzelanny Ohlendorf
SP Dumatrait+ Karstens
CL Capps Capps
LP Grabow Grabow
LP Marte Veal
RP Yates Yates
RP Burnett Burnett
RP Osoria Hansen

The Pirates' bullpen was also worst in the NL, but with a more respectable ERA of 4.69.  It doesn't figure to be markedly different this year, although a full season of underrated closer Matt Capps will help matters.  Rule V draft selection Donald Veal replaces Damaso Marte as the second lefty, which will be rough for this year, but if Veal can stick on the roster all season, he could be part of the long-term solution for the starting rotation.  A full season of walkaholic Craig Hanson isn't likely to help matters, either.  Basically, this bullpen lacks any depth whatsoever behind Capps and John Grabow, but the Pirates have more pressing matters to attend to.      

Final Word

About $20 million dollars are coming off the books once Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, and Jack Wilson are gone next winter.  In this market, $20 million can buy you quite a bit.  This offseason, it could have netted the Pirates RF Bobby Abreu ($5 M), 1B Jason Giambi ($5.25 M), SP Brad Penny ($5 M + bonuses), SP Matt Clement (minor), RP Eric Gagne (minor), 2B Adam Kennedy (minor), and SS Jose Uribe (minor).  That kind of a free agent haul could go a long way towards solidifying veterans around a good base of young talent already in place.  Most of the Pirates' young talent is under contract through 2012, so as long as the players develop, the Pirates should be good on that front.

But there are still some question marks.  Just because the Pirates have the money, that does not necessarily mean that they will spend it.  Around $9 million came of the books this year in Matt Morris' contract alone this season, but the Pirates were hardly big spenders this winter (they did, of course, lock up some of their own players long-term).  Also, just because there are free agent bargains to be had next year doesn't mean that the Pirates won't overspend on a Sean Casey-type of player instead.  Even if their free agent crop isn't as good as the one I outlined, they should receive some talent in return for LaRoche, Sanchez, and/or Wilson should they be dispersed at the trade deadline. 

Basically, things are lining up so that the Pirates can compete as early as 2010 and as late as 2012.  It still may not happen, but it's at least possible, and that's something Pirates fans haven't been able to say for a long, long time.

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