Last year, I began my Pirates preview as follows:
In about 2009, the tone of all Pirates previews will have changed. By that time, the tone will either have become noticeably more respectful or will have blown over the fine line between failure and utter despair. The Pirates have not made the playoffs or finished with a .500 record since Barry Bonds played for them.
The Pirates lost 95 games last year, something that they had done only one other time since 1992, when they last made the playoffs under Jim Leyland (and lost the NLCS on Francisco Cabrera's game-winning single in Game 7)...
To say, as many are, that the Pirates look like a team on the way up is not accurate. This is a team still just trying to halt, never mind reverse, terminal blood loss. The way up is the other way.
The 2005 Pirates committed the three cardinal sins of a baseball team. They were bad, colorless and unambitious. But in all three cases, it wasn't as bad as it might seem.
I could write exactly the same phrases this year, and be correct on nearly all accounts. The Pirates lost 95 games, the Pirates were bad, the Pirates were colorless, the Pirates were unambitious. The Pirates are a year closer to (and two years away from breaking) the Phillies' record for most consecutive seasons below .500.
So we are a year closer to outright despair. But there is one, very positive, change. It does indeed appear that the Pirates have halted terminal blood loss. It is not yet reversed; this is not yet a team with a clear path to contention. But for the first time in a very long time, it does appear that the Pirates will enter a season better off, from both a short term and a long term perspective, than they were the year before. Baby steps.
Last year's Pirates began to see the benefits of a heavy investment in young arms. The Pirates pitching was still bad, but it was considerably better than the year before. The Pirates were ninth in the National League in runs allowed; that's a bit misleading but not much. The central problem was the same as the year before; with a young and mostly power-pitching staff, the Pirates had walked 612 men in 2005, worst in the NL. In 2006, they walked even more batters but were kept off the bottom of the NL by the Marlins, whose pitchers were even younger and threw even harder, and the Cubs, of whose pitchers decent people shall not speak. Zach Duke consolidated his stature as a young starter of promise; Ian Snell may have even passed Duke, with 14 wins and several commanding performances. Paul Maholm cemented his status as a major league starter who belongs, and rookie Tom Gorzelanny joined Duke, Maholm and Snell in the rotation by the end of the season. Gorzelanny, Duke and Snell are a wonderful trio of young lefties; only the absurdly pitching-rich Marlins can hang with the Pirates in terms of young lefty talent. None of those pitchers were great in 2006, but they were certainly good enough to win games.
However, the four talented youngsters, all with ERAs well under 5.00, went a combined 34-41 because the offense stank. The Pirates scored 691 runs, last in the NL and very nearly last in all of baseball (Tampa beat them out by two runs). Again as in 2005, the principal failure lay in a power shortage - the Pirates finished dead last in the NL in home runs and slugging percentage - but the Pirates also finished in the bottom four in every major offensive category except singles and batting average (doubles, triples, walks, homers, on-base percentage, slugging percentage). This despite the fact that they have one of the NL's best hitters in Jason Bay, and despite a marvelous career year from third baseman Freddy Sanchez, who won the batting title, hit 53 doubles, and played third base as well as anyone in the major leagues when he wasn't playing an equally skilled shortstop or second base. Sanchez probably should have appeared on more MVP ballots (he came 17th), but he's almost certain not to repeat his terrific performance with the stick.
Of all the other Pirates, no one else combined effective offense and competent defense except catcher Ronny Paulino, who had a good enough season to be Rookie of the Year most years, if it weren't for the dozen or so other rookies who also broke into the weak NL and starred. Other than Bay, Sanchez and Paulino, the Pirates were either below average or well below average at every position. In the outfield, the Pirates punted two spots for the entire first half, with Chris Duffy (a leadoff hitter who doesn't get on base) in center and Jeromy Burnitz (an RBI man who hit .230) in right. Sean Casey was punchless for much of the season at first base. The Pirates have solved those problems to some degree by promoting younger players like Jose Bautista, and making a glitzy trade that I'll discuss in a minute.
The Pirates appear to be hoping that their pitching problems (the walks in particular) solve themselves as a young staff matures. This is certainly a decent bet (even though the principle that "young pitchers will break your heart" should be remembered in situations like this); the starting staff looks decently strong at any rate despite the lack of a veteran anchor, and the bullpen is increasingly first-rate despite losing closer Mike Gonzalez, having added surprising rookie Matt Capps last season to a solid crew.
The Pirates addressed their power problems as well, having traded away promising talent to the Atlanta Braves for slugging first baseman Adam LaRoche. The trade has understandably enthused the Pittsburgh fans (though the price, very promising shortstop Brent Lillibridge, may prove to be extremely high) because of the general recognition that the Pirates needed to add power hitters to a punchless lineup. LaRoche certainly brings that (the Pirates are also in the peculiar position of needing left-handed power specifically, as the huge left-center field in PNC Park is where flyballs go to die). The problem is, adding one player to this team who can hit home runs isn't enough; with no power from four positions (catcher, third base, shortstop and center field) the Pirates need to do better from right field, second base and/or the bench than they do at present. Replace incumbent Sean Casey's three home runs in 2006 with LaRoche's 32, and the Pirates would have finished 9th in the NL in homers but still would have finished 15th out of 16 teams in slugging percentage.
Do the Pirates have a chance of winning in 2006? In the weak NL Central, they certainly do. The Cardinals have lost talent from a relatively medicore team. The Astros have been treading water for a while, their core steadily aging and retiring while the young players slide to the downside of 27. The Brewers are still perhaps a year away, with much riding on very young hitters and a questionable pitching staff. The Reds are finally improving, but have defensive problems and a lot of question marks on their pitching staff despite a strong front end to their rotation. The Cubs were worse than the Pirates last year, and while they have brought in talent, especially on the hitting end, none of it will help their pitchers find the strike zone.
Yet it cannot be denied that the Pirates begin 2006 behind every other team in the NL Central, even with the Cubs' pitching staff in a state of core meltdown. The six-team division adds another obstacle in the way of a team like the Pirates making a worst-to-first miracle run. The reason is simple; that extra team makes the chance of coming through and winning the division despite a low win total that much harder. In a random five-team division, an 86-win team is about a 7-1 longshot to win the division. Add a sixth team, though, and that 86-win team's odds lengthen to 12-1. This means that more in the NL Central than anywhere else, a team like last year's Cards, sneaking through despite a poor season for a division winner, is a longshot. Although in the current season this effect is abated somewhat by the fact that no one in the division is all that good, it does mean that in the future, the Pirates should not depend on luck to push them into contention; they need to build a 90+ win team.
That is easier said than done, because of the situation the Pirates find themselves in. A team that has four genuine all-stars, and is pretty much average everywhere else, will more often than not find themselves with 90 wins. The Pirates' young players, generally, do look good enough to perhaps provide some of those average players. The problem is, for the most part the Pirates' all-star level talents (Bay, LaRoche and Sanchez in particular) are doomed to have become average players (or not much more) by the time the Pirates are really ready to contend, perhaps in 2009. Sanchez is likely to level off, and LaRoche and Bay will age and regress, and LaRoche in particular is not likely to age well. From the mound, Duke and Snell, in particular, are two pitchers either of whom could become an all-star, although it is very unlikely that both will do so. It leaves the Pirates a few all-stars short, and with the farm system in the shape it's in (with outfielder Andrew McCutchen the only star-level talent around, and he still is very far from a sure thing) it appears that the Pirates are either going to need some spectacular development from some young players, or the team will need to be sold to someone who is willing to unshackle their wallet.
My prediction for this year's Pirates is that they will be better, because I believe in good young pitchers even when my brain tells me not to. But 72 wins won't get it done.