"The Thing With Feathers" by Craig Burley
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). The Bucs went 15-13 in May thanks to a superb month by the position players at the plate and in the field. Other than that, the Pirates played awful baseball all year, with their best monthly record being 12-17 in September after it was all over and Lloyd McClendon was fired. 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.
The Pirates were bad, true, but they didn't play as badly as their 67-95 record might indicate, by the Pythagorean theorem they were the second unluckiest team in the NL, with a projected record of 72-90. The defense, led by the fine glove of shortstop Jack Wilson, was almost average although they did lead the NL in bobbled balls and were two away from leading the league in errors. And both pitching and hitting were all right, both below average but not terrible either. The pitchers' principal weakness was in controlling the strike zone, as they surrendered 612 walks, the second-worst mark in all of baseball and last in the NL. In fact, the fact that the Pirates surrendered 23 more homers than they hit and 141 more walks than they drew explains their failure to contend. 23 more homers for the offense and 141 fewer walks for the pitching staff would have put the Pirates around or above .500.
The Pirates were colorless, true, but Jason Bay turned into one of the best players in baseball and the otherworldly performances first of Zach Duke and then of Paul Maholm as the season wound down gave the fans a focus for their hopes and their rooting energies. The emergence of Snell and Burnett to join these two and Oliver Perez, with Mike Gonzalez and newcomers Damaso Marte and Roberto Hernandez in the pen, gives the Pirates one of the better all-round collections of young arms in the majors. Pittsburgh is particularly deep in lefthanded starting pitchers, one of the game's most sought-after commodities.
The Pirates were unambitious, true, particularly in their handling of outfielder/first baseman Craig Wilson when he returned from injury, but by the end of the year they were playing several young prospects. In that, there is hope. The Pirates have ten young players any of whom might explode on the National League in 2006. Catchers Ryan Doumit and Ronny Paulino, first baseman Brad Eldred, third baseman Jose Bautista, outfielders Chris Duffy and Nate McLouth, and four very young starting pitchers in Sean Burnett, Ian Snell, Paul Maholm and last year's sensation Zach Duke.
But will they get the opportunity? Things looked bleak when the Pirates went out in the offseason and signed first baseman Sean Casey, outfielder Jeromy Burnitz, and third baseman Joe Randa. Each signing blocks a younger and more promising Pirate player (Eldred, McLouth and both Bautista and infielder Freddy Sanchez, respectively) and none of the three are even a good bet to outperform the existing Pirate options, which include forgotten man Wilson. However, with Kip Wells out until midseason at least with an injury, it looks like four rookies or second-year players will join #1 starter Oliver Perez in the rotation, as Burnett, Snell, Maholm and Duke have the current inside track on rotation spots. The Pirates are certainly willing to let youth have its day.
Furthermore, the signings of Casey, Burnitz and Randa aren't all bad, not least because none is signed long-term. The Pirates felt that they needed to show evidence of a commitment to winning to their fanbase (and playing eight youngsters isn't the best way to do that) and with increased revenue expected from hosting this season's All-Star Game, the Pirates thought they should go ahead and spend on players who could complement their existing star Bay and their most promising young players like Doumit and Duffy. Hence also the decision to re-sign shortstop Wilson to a big-money, three-year deal. Casey, Burnitz, Randa, Wilson and relivers Salomon Torres and Roberto Hernandez form a nice core of experienced veterans who can still play at a reasonable level and can provide leadership and a good example.
And so the Pirates will send their #2 home run hitter from last season (Eldred) to the minor leagues and banish their #2 OBP man (Wilson) to the bench. McLouth also looks destined for a role on the bench or possibly a return to Nashville, Paulino may join him there, and Bautista is certain to. Bizarrely, the Pirates may begin 2006 with more major-league-ready hitting talent in AAA than any other major league team, despite having gone 67-95 last season and auditioned all of those players in 2006.
The new players are really nothing to write home about. Desperately needing walks and power after finishing 12th in the NL in home runs and 14th in walks drawn last season, the Pirates didn't add a lot of either. All three players have pretty good defensive reputations, and with the best of the existing defenders (Castillo, Wilson and Bay) sticking around, the Bucs should flash the leather pretty well assuming that centerfielder Chris Duffy can handle the job. But that's a small thing compared to the indifferent offensive contributions that Casey, Burnitz and Randa are likely to provide.
The best hopes for the Pirates in 2006 involve their pitching, which is the most unpredictable part of any team but doubly so in the Pirates' case. The Pirates have two principal advantages in their staff; a deep well of lefthanded talent, and pitchers who are hard to hit. Between the excellent defense and a primarily lefty staff whose stuff is hard to hit with authority, it is entirely possible that the Pirates could surrender one of the lowest batting averages in the league. If the power pitchers can display better control, the Pirates could take a huge leap forward in run prevention.
The new manager is Jim Tracy, who after developing a reputation as one of the game's better young managers did a bizarre about-face last year in Los Angeles, appearing to deliberately undermine his GM, feuding with players and appearing to fight internal battles in the press. Assuming that Tracy's year-long meltdown was just the product of high expectations and low results in LA, the lower-pressure environment in Pittsburgh may help return him to the front rank of managers.
Let's conclude this look at the 2006 Pirates by reviewing them from a "tools and skills" perspective.
Hitting for Average: The Pirates don't hit particularly well for average as a team, but no one is notably poor in this regard. Casey, Bay and Duffy should help the Pirates here; the replacement of Freddy Sanchez by Joe Randa will drag it down. Don't be surprised to see Burnitz down in the .220s, though, which would be painful. Nate McLouth may well be a .300 hitter as well.
Hitting for Power:As described above, this is the Pirates' principal achilles heel on offense. Burnitz will add power and probably will hit beind Jason Bay, who remains the only true power threat on the team. Brad Eldred and Daryle Ward tied for second on the Pirates last year with 12 home runs; Ward is gone and Eldred ticketed for the minors. If he gets 200 plate appearances, look for him to end up in double digits (he had 12 in 208 PA last season) but otherwise the Pirates probably have the worst power core in the majors. Randa hit 17 homers last season and Casey 9; out of the Great American Launching Pad, 10 and 5 seem like more likely totals. Noted slugger Jose Castillo was fourth on the Pirates in homers with 11. Playing Craig Wilson would really help here. Duffy and McLouth, the young outfielders, aren't serious home run threats but McLouth could be the type to hit 40 doubles, like new Buc Sean Casey can.
Speed:The Pirates have less speed than they do power. Jason Bay is the only good basestealer in the lineup, almost going perfect for the season last year before being caught once in September (he went 21-for-22). Having Chris Duffy all year should help some, and McLouth steals a bag now and again, but otherwise the young guys aren't young, fast guys.
Plate Discipline: Only Craig Wilson and Jason Bay are notably good at drawing a walk. The rookies (Duffy, McLouth, Doumit) and the double play combo of Jack Wilson and Castillo are all fairly free swingers. The Pirates don't have a natural leadoff hitter, although Duffy seems almost certain to play there.
Range: Chris Duffy holds the key here. Jason Bay has good range for a leftfielder and Jeromy Burnitz gets to a lot of balls in right. Duffy looked amazing in center while with the Pirates in 2005 and if he can continue that form the Pirates will have a fine defensive outfield. In the infield, Wilson makes plays that others don't and Castillo holds his own as well. Where they really shine is in turning the double play (like a previous Bucco keystone combo, Alley and Mazeroski) although all those walks that Pirate pitchers are giving up sure helps a lot.
Throwing: The Pirates' catchers did very well against the running game, limiting opponents to just 64 steals and nailing 36 runners. The departed Dave Ross was best in this regard, but Doumit was certainly better than average. In the outfield, the Pirates don't have anyone with a notable cannon. Bay in particular can be run on.
Reliability: Eldred has hands of stone, one reason the Pirates may have went after Casey. Castillo and Wilson are fairly normal, and the Pirates will be glad not to have Ty Wigginton at third anymore, as Wigginton had a bad case of the dropsies. Bay in the outfield is very reliable as are Casey and Randa.
Fastball: Oliver Perez has a killer fastball, as fans will know. Zach Duke is sneaky fast; he usually tops out around 91 on the gun but his goodchangeup (and the fact that he's a lefty) makes it seem faster. Maholm isn't a hard thrower; like most lefties, he tops out around 90 but is more effective throwing 87-88 and he gets excellent movement. Reliever Salomon Torres has a blazing fastball that's tough to hit hard. Closer Mike Gonzalez, another lefty, has a fastball's that's basically as good as Torres' 96mph heat. New man Roberto Hernandez is probably faster than either, though.
Delivery: Oliver Perez usually throws from a low three-quarter arm slot and sometimes goes straight sidearm like an old-fashioned "crossfire" pitcher; he's immensely hard to hit against when he has his velocity up but when he doesn't have his best stuff he's far less troublesome. When Perez is on, righthanders have trouble picking up the ball out of the second baseman's chest, and lefthanders usually soil several pairs of underwear during the course of seven or eight innings.
Breaking Pitches: Ian Snell throws a wicked, hard-breaking curve that he uses as a strikeout pitch. Duke's hook is more typical, but it's also a superb pitch and probably his best strikeout pitch as well.
Other Pitches: Snell's total lack of a changeup is what prevents him from being one of the best pitching prospects in baseball. Maholm, on the other hand, is a wizard with his change, and his ability to change speeds makes him as good as he is. Hernandez's split-finger pitch is probably the key to his success... his fastball is really fast, but it doesn't move much; the splitter was working in '05, though.
Control: The Pirate pitchers struggle most with this aspect, even though for some it represents the key to their success. Zach Duke is the exception to the struggles; his control is excellent and has been at every level. Sean Burnett isn't a real hard thrower, and depends on locating his pitches well in order to be hard to hit. Oliver Perez and Ian Snell are prone to walking too many batters, as is Mike Gonzalez, who is a classic flamethrowing closer with a direction problem. Roberto Hernandez is also prone to walking too many.
Aggressiveness: New man Damaso Marte has fairly ordinary stuff, although a good fastball for a lefty, but what makes him most effective is that he gets right in the grill of the lefthanded batters and makes them afraid. He's regained some wildness, though, and leaving White Sox wizard Don Cooper behind may hurt him.
Essentially, every important Pirate pitcher fits one of two molds: a lefty with several pitches who knows how to pitch; or an aggressive, flamethrowing power pitcher with iffy control. The former encompasses Burnett, Duke, Maholm and reliver John Grabow. The latter describes Perez, Snell, Gonzalez, Marte and Hernandez. Those nine should be doing the bulk of the Pirates pitching, and it's fitting that these two types of pitchers are the least predictable types of pitchers out there. The smart lefties are going to be helped a lot if the defense is as good as it can be (Duke and Maholm's great late-season play came mostly after Castillo went out with a knee injury) and if Tracy can take his experience with a good group of power pitchers in LA and make it work for the Pirates, they could make a very substantial leap forward.
There's hope in the Steel City. But remember, as Bill James once put it so memorably - young pitchers will break your heart.
Thanks to ex-rosterite Craig Burley for pinch hitting with the Pirates.