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December 14, 2011

The BP Broadside

Cottleston Pirates

by Steven Goldman

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In A.A. Milne’s original Winnie-the-Pooh stories, there is a little song called “Cottleleston Pie,” which is the song Pooh sings when he’s confused by some piece of information:

Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
Why does a chicken? I don’t know why.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie,
A fish can’t whistle and neither can I.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston Cottleston Cottleston Pie.

Earlier tonight, I was looking at some material from our just-completed book, Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, coming this spring. One question I asked in the course of the book was which teams had the most and least playing time devoted to young players, there defined as 25 or younger in seasonal age. Most of the results were not terribly surprising, and you can probably infer them just from skimming down a given roster (Royals and Braves skew young, Phillies and Yankees don’t). However, there was one line that made me ask, “Why does a chicken?” or more accurately, “How do the Pirates?”

Of all 30 teams, the club that had the lowest percentage of its innings pitched by hurlers under 25 was, you guessed it, the Pirates, with an incredible 3.4 percent. The Pirates had just four pitchers match that description all season—Jeff Locke, Aaron Thompson, Jared Hughes, and Daniel Moskos. Everyone else was older than that, a surprising thing to learn given that the Pirates are supposed to be building—finally—and that their position players were among the youngest in the game. This staff, newly aged by the soon-to-be 33-year-old Erik Bedard, was not particularly young by the definition supplied here.

That last phrase, “by the definition supplied here” is key. Pirates pitchers were by no means old in 2011. The five main starters—Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Paul Maholm, and Kevin Correia—averaged 28 years of age. This isn’t the same thing as, say, the Yankees’ 2005 rotation, which was headed up by Randy Johnson (41), Kevin Brown (40), and Mike Mussina (36). Still, it isn’t exactly “Young Guns Redux,” and given that of the group only McDonald surpassed the league-average strikeout rate for starting pitchers (6.9), it strongly suggests three things we already instinctively knew to be true: there is little growth left in this set of pitchers; what little future they have likely belongs to McDonald; and, finally, we probably should not expect the Pirates’ long drought to end anytime soon. These pitchers will already be over 30 and headed to the last roundup before the Pirates come close to getting their act together.

That is not to say that the Pirates might not finish over .500 one of these days. Even the futile Phillies of 1918-1948 accidentally got in one winning season (they went 78-76 in 1932) amidst all of that relentless losing. The Pirates will have the coin come up heads over and over in some future campaign, like the Royals did in 2003, and everyone will say, “Hooray! They’re back!” only, they won’t be back.

The Pirates are now in a race against time. Position players such as Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, and Andrew McCutchen are now maturing in the big leagues and will only have utility (or affordability) for so long, though Tabata is signed through 2016 at relatively affordable amounts with options through 2019. Still, if that’s the core—we don’t yet know if it is—it seems likely to have seen its Pittsburgh time pass by the time prospective pitchers such as Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, Stetson Allie, and Kyle McPherson are ready to pitch consistently at the major-league level.

Whether the Pirates can bring these pitchers together with these position players in some kind of fruitful union remains to be seen. They have had a miserable offseason, adding miserable, bottom-scraping vets such as Rod Barajas, Clint Barmes, and Nate McLouth as free agents while taking a swap flier on Casey McGehee, who should at least serve to provide competition for the enigmatic Pedro Alvarez. A poor fielder, McGehee hit well in his first two major-league campaigns with the Brewers before having one of the worst seasons in baseball last year at .223/.280/.346 in 155 games. Regrettably, he fits right in on the Pirates.

With all of these veteran mediocrities, including Bedard, are taken together with the realization that their young pitching staff is actually not so young, it becomes clear that the Pirates are no longer building but are simply conducting another holding action. Perhaps Alex Presley has another surprisingly good season, and he will later be joined by Starling Marte and Tony Sanchez, but there still isn’t a hole team here, not in the bigs, not in development. Nor will Jeff Locke or Aaron Thompson, possible lefty additions to the rotation among the rookie crowd, solve the staff’s stuff problem; they may be good, but they’re not high-ceiling guys.

It’s sad; under Neal Huntington, the Pirates seemed to be doing so much right, and their accumulation of Cole and Allie certainly suggests some intelligent drafting. However, that stunning 3.4 percent of innings by pitchers 25 or under suggests that his forces are not moving across a coordinated front. They have a McCutchen here, a Cole somewhere, but they’re on trains leaving the station at different times.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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