September 18, 2007
Wait 'Til Next Year
Your 2010 Pirates
In his most recent BP chat, Pirates beat writer John Perrotto noted that White Sox executive Rick Hahn opted against interviewing with the Pirates. I would guess Hahn is not alone in expressing this sentiment, and while we can't know any one person's reasons for passing on a job opportunity, it's impossible to imagine that the depressed health of baseball in Pittsburgh didn't have anything to do with Hahn's decision.
However, I believe the Pirates' general manager job to be a diamond in the rough. I say this while fully understanding that Pittsburgh fans will be angry at me for again getting their hopes up, but when analyzing the health of this organization, I believe the right executive should be able to build a winner in under four seasons, putting to rest almost two decades of horrible Pirates baseball. And for this, in the wake of the tenures of Cam Bonifay and Dave Littlefield, this new GMTBNL will become an icon, when really the blueprint for that success has already been laid out.
Before the season, Kevin Goldstein aptly ranked the Pirates 25th in his system-wide organizational rankings. Remember, that was when Andrew McCutchen was universally considered a far better prospect than Colby Rasmus, Todd Redmond looked like a sleeper, and Yoslan Herrera looked like a worthwhile Cuban import. Josh Sharpless seemed the Pirates most likely closer, Mike Felix a potential second-round steal, and the Bucs seemed a potential destination for catcher Matt Wieters in the upcoming draft.
However, I'll show you a rough position-by-position blueprint of what the Pirates will look like in 2010, when I believe they can be a winning baseball team assuming only minor acquisitions.
The Adam LaRoche trade turned out to be pretty good, another data point supporting the notion that the Pirates should work with their ballpark to get as many left-handed hitters into the lineup as possible. However, LaRoche isn't perfect, and it's not as if his .273/.345/.461 line is lighting the world on fire--it's still 32 OPS points below an average NL first baseman. Enter Steven Pearce, who broke out this season, showing power throughout the whole year. Right now, Pearce is playing every day for the PIRates in right field, providing the next GM with some options. The best would be to acknowledge that Pearce is ready, and according to Clay Davenport is a future .300 EqA-caliber hitter, so the new guy should try to do better than getting Mike Gonzalez for LaRoche.
Second base is set, as Freddy Sanchez should be allowed to play until his service time renders him a free agent, at which point he should then be let go. By 2011, PECOTA projects Sanchez's WARP to go below three, so the Pirates should just go through arbitration with him annually until then; in the meantime, the Pirates have an above-average player at second base for the immediate future. For the distant future, Ford provides some hope, and 2008 will determine if his second half bust-out is worth a spot with the future Pirates.
Despite Wilson's surprisingly decent year at the plate, his contract extension is not a good thing, given his age and offensive history. The new GM must be able to parlay Wilson in a worthwhile trade--and remember, this offseason offers very little in the way of shortstops--and then install Bixler at shortstop. While Bixler won't offer much in the way of power, but he's a patient hitter and an efficient base stealer.
Walker is one of Dave Littlefield's most significant gifts to his successor. While he was probably never going to be a catcher, the Pirates were proactive in moving him to the hot corner. One of the best hitters in the minors, Walker can be expected to make an impact next year similar to the impact that Billy Butler made on the Royals this year. That makes Bautista a bargaining chip for the new GM, and another rare Pirates player with real value on the market.
The projections are interesting, because they indicate my concern with putting those numbers in this piece: a lot has changed since then. It turns out that Paulino wasn't quite the hitter he showed in 2006, while Doumit is still quite the slugger. Conversely, Doumit's defensive value at catcher is considered significantly worse than it was a year ago. Doumit isn't great in right field either, so he might be best as the Pirates' first guy off the bench. That would mean that the new GM has to decide between Paulino and seeking outside help. Ah, how nice Matt Wieters would look here.
Bay's extension is money in the bank, because even after disappointing seasons like 2007, he's earning more than he's making. PECOTA also assigns Bay a generous aging curve, guessing that he'll still be pretty valuable all the way through 2011. The Pirates should see how well his 2008 season pans out, and if it does, then work on another extension before his contract year (2009) plays out.
The Pirates thought Chris Duffy was their player here entering the season, but McLouth became the guy. He did well to cut down on his groundball rate, which improved his slugging, and I'd expect the batting average to follow in 2008. His inexpensive adequacy allows Andrew McCutchen to be coddled, as it was clear that pushing McCutchen up to Double-A so quickly this year was not a good idea. McCutchen is still a great prospect, but he should really return to Altoona in 2008; in the meantime, McLouth will suffice, even if McCutchen busts.
That Nady put together a big season is good news for Pirates fans, and while he's no star, his offense and defense play slightly above average at the position. Contractually, he's in the same boat as Freddy Sanchez, a bit old for 2007 to be his first arbitration-eligible season. Like Sanchez, I think the Pirates' budget might make it best for the team to keep Nady on board until he reaches free agency, and then bid him goodbye just as he hits his early thirties. By then, Jamie Romak, a good acquisition from the Braves with Three True Outcomes potential, will possibly be ready to take the job.
For kicks, I put the following lineup into Dave Pinto's lineup analysis model, using the (admittedly optimistic) projected numbers from above: McLouth, Sanchez, Bay, Walker, Pearce, Nady, Paulino, Bixler, Average NL Pitcher. That lineup could yield 822 runs, the first time the organization would have broken 800 since 1940. However, the numbers are optimistic, though I do think the Pirates are not far from a 750-run team.
I think one thing the Pirates' next GM must do is acquire starting pitchers, and not like Dave Littlefield tried to do by trading for Matt Morris. I think giving Pittsburgh the opportunity to trade LaRoche, Wilson, and Bautista should allow for that. Jack Wilson to the Cardinals for Anthony Reyes? LaRoche and Bautista to the Giants for a package that brings them Jonathan Sanchez? You get the idea.
However, the Pirates do have three future rotation members. Tom Gorzelanny has proven to be one of the league's best young southpaws, out-VORPing guy like Cole Hamels and Scott Kazmir this season. Ian Snell is quietly emerging as one of the National League's best young pitchers, striking out 166 batters and showing solid progression. Finally, one can imagine Paul Maholm's peak, as the command lefty that attacks hitters, to come as an above-average league starter.
The top concern for the next General Manager is the depth at this position. Zach Duke is not his former self. Bryan Bullington and John Van Benschoten should be regarded as wasted projects. Brad Lincoln is a gigantic question mark with a far-distant ETA. And yet, somehow, the Pirates drafted a closer in the first round.
The Pirates put together a decent bullpen in 2007 thanks to relying on a group of pitchers that attacked the strike zone. The foursome of Matt Capps, Damaso Marte, John Grabow, and Salomon Torres have pitched 215 1/3 innings this season, walking just 64 batters in the process. Marte and Torres will both be back for relatively cheap in 2008, and both should be traded midseason if their values get high enough. Capps and Grabow will be bullpen stalwarts in the coming seasons. In the future, the team should expect Josh Sharpless to turn a corner and pitch effectively in the bullpen (replacing Shawn Chacon), and before too long, Daniel Moskos will replace Marte as the southpaw set-up man. The rest I imagine the GM could put together on the fly, as it's hard to screw up the bullpen when handed Capps, Moskos, and Grabow.
No matter what happens in the future, Dave Littlefield will always be considered bad news in Pittsburgh. He earned that rep, but when the Pirates' next GM compiles an above-average offense with ease, and fills out the rotation with just a couple of trades, I'll feel a bit for Littlefield, who, thanks to Cam Bonifay's mess, never got the chance his successor will have.