|2008 Pittsburgh Pirates|
Written by Justin Zeth (Contact & Archive) on February 19, 2008
2007 Regular Season Record: 68-94. Still 14 games short of the impossible dream!
No! Nooooooo! NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!
The Andy Dufresne “Escaped From Shawshank” All-Stars
Re-signed, Apparently at Gunpoint
What's It All Mean?
Well, Tiffany, it sure isn't likely to be the kind of genius strokes we talk about twenty years from now as having turned the tide for the Pirates. The casual fan has heard of how many of these guys? He might have a vague recollection of something called Elmer Dessens pitching in Arizona or someplace and Salomon Torres sounds familiar... doesn't Cesar Izturis play for the Dodgers?
All we need is the Byung-Hyun Kim and Kevin Mench signings to make the Pirates offseason officially complete.
Um... they totally have the market cornered on glove-man shortstops named J. Wilson. Personally, I think picking up Josh Wilson was a clever marketing move designed to get the legions of devoted Jack Wilson fans to run out and buy their brand new officially licensed Jack Wilson jerseys with “JA. WILSON” or “JACK WILSON” across the back. That could put, who knows, an extra $500 in Bob Nutting's pockets. Or maybe they plan to pick up Craig Wilson, Preston Wilson, Paul Wilson, C.J. Wilson, and Vance Wilson, and try to field an all-Wilson team. That would be kind of cool, and no less pointless than what they're presently doing.
Um... I guess for the 62nd straight year, the Pirates have some sort of interesting young starting pitching. If you want to bet on that actually turning into a strength this time around, go right ahead; the line isn't long.
Um... their closer and setup guy, Matt Capps and Damaso Marte, are actually very good, and Capps is very young. So yeah, I think that qualifies as an actual strength.
The Pirates are presently below average at the following positions:
Yeah, about the starting pitching. For years now, reporters searching desperately for something, anything nice to say about the Pittsburgh Pirates have come up with: They have good young pitching! Except, not. After his torrid September back in 2005, Zach Duke has spent the past two years getting beaten like a drum, and that by the National League. The National League Central. Paul Maholm's 25 and posted a 5.02 ERA with ugly K/BB rates. So they have Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell, and those guys are pretty good. Beyond that, nothing. Nada.
Oh, wait. They do have Matt Morris.
In the bullpen, as noted above, Matt Capps and Damaso Marte are money, but beyond them, it's a train wreck. The following pitchers pitched at least 20 innings for the Pirates and posted an ERA somewhere north of 6.00:
Tony Armas (97 innings, 6.03)
The good relievers on the Pirates' staff were John Grabow (52 innings, 4.53), Shawn Chacon (96 innings, a fluky 3.94 ERA with a horrible walk rate), Salomon Torres (53 innings, 5.47), and Franquelis Osoria (28 innings, 4.76). Everybody else on the staff, more than ten pitchers in all, pitched insignificant numbers of innings and put up ERAs that look like the Boeing product line.
If I may wax serious for a moment, let's discuss the real problem with the Pirates. It's not all the middling guys hanging around the roster and siphoning playing time, necessarily. Lots of teams, even good teams, have a list of relief pitchers with 6.50 ERAs and bench guys that hit .202/.236/.311 in 73 plate appearances or whatever.
The problem with the Pirates is that they have no impact players. They have the two starting pitchers, the hope of a bounceback season from Jason Bay, and a decent right fielder in Xavier Nady. There are no stars; there is nobody, besides Bay, that even might conceivably become a star. The best players in the lineup, guys like Nady and Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez, are averageish players. Even a middling team like the Braves has a Chipper Jones here and a Jeff Francoeur there and a Kelly Johnson over there. Even the Marlins had Uggla and Hanley Ramirez and Miggy Cabrera.
The Pirates are poised to continue losing 90-105 games every season until the end of time because they have no understanding of, or desire for, high-impact baseball players. When they decide to spend a pile of money, they go out and spend it on Matt Morris, or they give a lucrative contract extension to an average shortstop. The Pirates continue to think, as they have thought for fifteen years now, that all they need to become competitive is a few more average or above-averageish players. They draft with the goal of developing average players; they target average players in free agency and when doling out contract extensions. When they decide they need a new catcher, they don't look around to see what high-potential guy might be acquired; they try to sign Johnny Estrada. “Low ceiling” is the theme of everything the Pirates do.
And now, as a demonstration, let's look at their important players.
What we have there, folks, is a lineup with no star potential, outside of hoping Bay comes around. The problem with the Pirates isn't that things aren't going right; it's that even if absolutely everything goes right, that still only makes it an average lineup. And everything won't go right; it never does. That, in a nutshell, is why the Pirates go into each season expecting to win 80 and wind up winning 68.
SP1 – Tom Gorzelanny
Say one thing for the Pirates: They have continuity in the rotation. These are the same five guys that comprised last year's rotation, though Duke only pitched 107 innings and is in danger of washing out completely if he doesn't show up healthy and effective this year.
Both Gorzelanny and Snell do have some star potential. Gorzelanny is overrated by many, who project him as a solid #2 starter in the major leagues. The fact is that Gorzelanny is a good pitcher, but he's closer to LAIM (League Average Innings Muncher) than ace. His strikeout rate, 135 Ks in 202 innings, and his K:BB ratio of merely 2:1, does not project to future stardom. Without notable improvement in those areas, his ERA is going to be closer to 4.88 than last year's 3.88 in 2008.
Ian Snell is another story. He pitched almost the same number of innings as Gorzelanny, six more to be exact, and walked the same number of batters—but struck out 30% more, 177 to 135. Snell's 3.75 ERA is for real, and the whims of luck are the only explanation for Gorzelanny's 14-10 record against Snell's 9-12. Snell is improving by degrees each season, and if he stays healthy, he has the best, maybe the only, chance among the 2008 Pirates to have a real breakout. And if he does, who knows, maybe he'll get called up to the major leagues.
Closer – Matt Capps
Keys to Success
Okay, let's concoct a scenario where the Cubs and Brewers both collectively contract a nasty case of cholera or something, and the Pirates can steal the NL Central title with, say, 84 wins.
They were a 70 win team last year, and they're returning exactly the same lineup and rotation this year, unless they pointlessly swap out Paulino for Bako or somebody. They would need to improve by 14 wins to have a shot at this thing. No; let's assume we need a little bit of help from the vicissitudes of chance, and go with a scenario where the Pirates play like an 80 win team, but actually win 84 games. So we need to pick up 10 wins.
Where's that improvement coming from? Well, if Jason Bay goes back to 2006 form, that adds about four wins. Now, Adam LaRoche... 2007 was the exception for Bay, so it's conceivable he could revert to his old form. For LaRoche, though, 2007 was the rule; his great 2006 season was the exception. But if the Pirates are going to play like a respectable team, they need LaRoche to go back to 2006 mode and slug .560 again. He does that, he'll add another two and a half wins or so.
That's about it for guys in the Pirates' lineup enjoying serious breakouts. To maintain the pace, they'd need Nady and Wilson and Sanchez to maintain their 2007 levels, collectively if not individually. Assuming that happens, they also need some kind of production from third base, and for Paulino to provide average production at catcher.
If all of that happens, we've gained about seven wins. Can we gain three more from the pitching? Certainly. Gorzelanny could improve his actual performance enough to make his 2008 results look similar to his luck-aided 2007 results. Snell could turn into one of the better pitchers in the league. Maholm or Duke could improve and throw up a 4.00 ERA instead of the 5.20-ish they usually do.
But do you see the point? With most teams, the “Keys to Success” are simple things, like “the starting pitching needs to stay fairly healthy” (Mets or Red Sox), or “the veteran stars need to hang on one more year” (Braves), or “the young studs need to step up and be stars” (Brewers or Dodgers or Rays), and so on. With the Pirates, they need virtually everyone on the entire roster to perform at or near the top of his abilities at the same time. And that almost never happens; it happens about once in a generation, as with the 1914 Braves, the 1950 Phillies, the 1969 Mets, and the 2003 Marlins. And even those teams are bad comparisons for the Pirates, as they all had young stud prospects that suddenly became young superstars. The Phillies had Richie Ashburn and Robin Roberts; the Mets had Tom Seaver and Tommie Agee; the Marlins had Josh Beckett and Miggy Cabrera. The Pirates have Ian Snell and Adam LaRoche. You do the math.
I apologize if I'm peeing in anybody's Cheerios here, but the Pirates won't reach 70 wins, again, and they'll draft in the top five, again.