2010 Pittsburgh Pirates:
Time Enough for Countin'
When the Dealin's Done

BaseballEvolution.com 2010 Spring Preview
by Keith Glab, BaseballEvolution.com
March 29, 2010

Key Transactions
Acquired Pos.
Akinori Iwamura 2B
Ryan Church RF
Octavio Dotel RP
Brendan Donnelly RP
Javier Lopez RP
D.J. Carrasco RP
Departed Pos.
Matt Capps RP
Jesse Chavez RP
Luis Cruz SS
Craig Monroe OF
Robinson Diaz C
The 2009 Pirates made history by sporting a losing record for the 17th consecutive season, the most ever for a North American pro sports team.  In last year's preview, I noted that a lot of fat would be trimmed from the Pirates' payroll by 2010, meaning that they would be able to spend a lot of money to compete if they so desired.  With the unexpected departures of Nate McLouth and Ian Snell, even more money came off the books than I had anticipated.  Nevertheless, the organization has elected not to use it to improve their major league roster... at least, not yet.

Uninformed Pirates fans will blame team owner Tom Nutting for pocketing the profits made from a low-budget team playing in a publicly-funded stadium.  Although the Pirates' opening day payroll is likely to be lower in 2010 than it has been any year since 2004, this is not an instance of an indifferent owner profiting off two decades of fan misery.  Pittsburgh's front office finally has a plan that could work in a small market, and part of that plan included the Pirates spending more money on the amateur draft in the past two years than any other franchise.

Moreover, the Pirates spent $5 million on a new academy in the Dominican Republic last April and have been aggressively handing bonuses Latin American players ever since general manager Neal Huntington took the ship's helm in 2007.  They aren't just throwing money around aimlessly, either; they are pioneers in tapping parts of the world for baseball talent that other franchises haven't considered.  Infielder Mpho' Gift Ngoepe became the first black South African to play minor league baseball last year.  Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh became both the first professional cricket players and the first India natives to play professional ball in the United States.  Each of these players is in the Pirates' organization.  

The point is that the Pirates are now throwing less money at mediocre, past-their-prime players and putting more money into scouting and player development.  That makes a lot of sense for a team with limited resources.

Zach Duke

This doesn't mean that the Pirates are completely done spending money on bad players, however.  Even though the Buccos only have ten players slated to make seven-figure salaries in 2010, some of them clearly do not deserve such wealth.  Among them, Zach Duke ($4.3 M), Paul Maholm ($4.5 M), and Ryan Doumit ($3.55 M) are legitimate young talents who could still be a part of the team when it finally contends; Akinori Iwamura ($4.85 M), Octavio Dotel ($3.5 M), Ryan Church ($1.5 M), and Brendan Donnelly ($1.35 M) could have solid seasons, but their age makes them nothing more than trade bait come July; and Ramon Vazquez ($2M), Ronny Cedeno ($1.25 M), and Bobby Crosby ($1 M) are, at best, replacement-level players who are grossly overpaid.

Pos '09 '10
C Doumit/Jaramillo Doumit
1B Ad. LaRoche Clement
2B Sanchez Iwamura
3B An. LaRoche An. LaRoche
SS J Wilson R Cedeno
LF Morgan/Milledge Milledge
CF McCutchen McCutchen
RF Moss/Jones Jones/Church

But for the most part, the Pirates are hoarding their treasure this year.  Top prospects Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata will remain in the minor leagues until late May in order to delay their arbitration/free agent eligibility for one more season.  That's not only a good pecuniary move; it also gives the Pirates a chance to showcase/evaluate their current major league talent before the prospects start eating into their at-bats.  Without the benefit of that evaluation window, I will do my best to separate the key components of the Pirates' roster into four groups: Hold 'em, Fold'em, Walk Away, and Run!

Hold 'em: Andrew McCutcheon, Andy LaRoche, Ryan Doumit, Ross Ohlendorf

McCutchen is obvious.  Even though he is a below average defensive centerfielder right now, he has the physical tools to become above average.  At age 23, he is already an elite offensive centerfielder.  He will be the face of the franchise for the next decade.

Many people will be surprised to see LaRoche listed in this category.   I was surprised that I listed him here myself.  But LaRoche is a very good defender at the hot corner and batted .313 with 5 homers and 18 RBI after August 31.   I realize that those hundred at-bats do not nullify the hundreds of terrible at-bats that preceded them, but LaRoche is 26, has a .900 minor league OPS, and was second on the Pirates with 50 walks last year (to McCutchen, of course).  Tony Alvarez made 25 errors in 109 games last year, so he is likely going to move to first base.  At worst, LaRoche can be a solid contributor at third base.  At best, he breaks out like his brother did after 800 major league at-bats and becomes a similar offensive player at a more premium defensive position.

Ryan Doumit is not without his faults.  He doesn't walk enough, he gets injured too often, and he is only average behind the dish.  But when healthy, this guy can rake with all but the elite catchers in baseball.  Moreover, he hasn't logged many innings behind the plate, which bodes well for how he will hit after the age of 30.  He is signed through 2012 with a club option for 2013.  First-rounder Tony Sanchez figures to be ready before then, but Doumit's ability to play first base and outfield makes the idea of having both players on the roster tenable.

Fold'em: Lastings Milledge, Garrett Jones, Paul Maholm, Zach Duke

Disappointment Candidate
Garrett Jones
Turns 29 in June and has a .312 OBP in over a thousand minor league games
Comeback Candidate
Ryan Doumit
Hit .346 in September after injuries plagued him during the summer

You might ask why the Pirates' best hitter from last season should be traded away.  Basically, he is a standard Pirates star: way older than you think he is and not particularly successful in the minor leagues.  His success will be fleeting, so the Bucs should deal him at peak value.  Lastings Milledge hit an empty .291 last year, and the Pirates will want to consider trading him in before he reminds people of his former behavioral problems, even though he only turns 25 in April.

You might also ask why the Pirates should rid themselves of Maholm and Duke but keep Ohlendorf, when all three appear to be mediocre pitch-to-contact hurlers of similar age.  In this case, it really is all about money.  Maholm will make $5.75 million in 2011 and the Pirates would have to pay him $9.75 M to retain him in 2012.  Duke essentially doubled his 2009 salary in his second year of arbitration-eligibility.  If he does that again, he would be due more than $8 M next year before becoming a free agent in 2012.  Ohlendorf, however, won't even become arbitration-eligible for another two years.

Walk Away: Just About Everyone Else

Run!: Jeff Clement, Steve Pearce, Delwyn Young, Kevin Hart

Steve Pearce and Lastings Milledge

Clement and Pearce are both 26 and haven't shown that they can hit major league pitching yet.  It's likely that one of them will hit this year, and it could either mean that at-bats are taken away from better hitters like Alvarez, Doumit, and Jones, or that someone who should be limited to first base is being played at another position.  Similarly, Delwyn Young has played second and third base despite his being a shorter version of his brother, Dmitri.  He's a defensive disaster, but his six home runs in 47 spring at-bats (as compared to seven in 354 at-bats last year) could prompt the Bucs to invent harmful ways to get his bat into the lineup.  Kevin Hart offers the best strikeout ratio of any Pirates starter, but he also gets crushed because of how many mistake pitches he makes.  He's 27-years old and not likely going to turn around his 1.88 WHIP from last season.

Pirates Team Capsule

Pos '09 '10
SP Maholm Maholm
SP Duke Duke
SP Ohlendorf Ohlendorf
SP Morton/Snell Morton
SP Karstens/Hart D McCutchen
SP D McCutchen Karstens/Hart
CL Capps Dotel
LP Grabow J. Lopez
RP Chavez Donnelly
RP Meek Meek
RP S. Jackson Carrasco
RP Hanrahan Hanrahan
Final Word

1997 was the last time the Pirates seriously contended for a winning season or a playoff berth.  They were over .500 as late as August 26 and 1.5 games out of first place in early September despite having an opening day payroll under $10 million and failing to acquire any help at the trade deadline. 

This year's Pirates will also likely have the lowest opening day payroll in baseball.  Should the unthinkable happen and the Pirates find themselves hanging around the .500 mark in mid-July, they will not only have built-in acquisitions Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez, but they have money enough stored up to add even more to their squad.

The more likely scenario, however, is that these Pirates battle Houston for last place in the NL Central and gear up for a serious run in either 2011 or 2012. 

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