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September 8, 2009

Future Shock

Pirates Adrift

by Kevin Goldstein

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On Monday, the Pirates dropped an afternoon game to the Cubs to ensure their 17th consecutive losing season, a ignominious record for professional sports in North America. That said, the team is clearly working on... well, something. As the owner of a house built in the 19th century, I find myself using a fair amount of housing metaphors, and the way I see the Pirates, the new administration began a gut rehab in 2008, but after a re-assessment, 2009 became a complete tear-down.

On June 3, Pittsburgh sent outfielder Nate McLouth to the Braves for three prospects, beginning a flurry of transactions that would end with ten big leaguers getting sent out for a whopping 16 prospects. Theoretically, adding 16 potential big leaguers should be a system-changing event, but a deeper look shows that in some ways it's just a younger version of the same old stuff we've seen losing games in Pittsburgh for nearly two decades now. Consider the talent added (and their ages), running through first the position players, and then the pitchers:

Potential Star Player

Lastings Milledge, 24: He's easily the most talented player acquired this summer, but he's also not without risks. Milledge has been playing like a future star lately, and maybe a low spotlight team without much in the way of expectations will be just what the doctor ordered. If he's playing in an All-Star Game three years from now, nobody will be surprised, but the same could be said if he's playing in Triple-A three years from now.

Potential Starters

Ronny Cedeno, 26: He certainly has all of the tools and ability to be a solid second-division starting shortstop, or at least a valuable utility player.

Jeff Clement, 26: Not likely to live up to the expectations of being the third overall pick once upon a time, but the pressing question about Clement is where he fits into the Pirates of the future as far as his position goes. He hasn't caught all year and he was never good there in the first place, and he could end up blocked by Pedro Alvarez in the end.

Gorkys Hernandez, 22: He has outstanding speed and defense, but the ability to hit for average is countered by an impatient approach and little power. Could he just be a future Nyjer Morgan type?

Potential Bench Players

Eric Fryer, 24: This is an optimistic projection, but he's at least potentially a catcher with on-base skills.

Josh Harrison, 22: He slices line drives all over the place and plays multiple positions, but none of them well.

Potential Back-End Stating Pitchers

Tim Alderson, 20: While he commands his pitches with laser-like precision, right-handers can only go so far with his kind of below-average velocity. Alderson is pretty much a lock to be a big leaguer, but his chances of being an impact pitcher are slim.

Jeff Locke, 21: While his performance numbers aren't anything to write home about, he's left-handed, he has solid velocity and gets ground balls, and he will receive plenty of chances.

Brett Lorin, 22: A six-foot-seven righty, he has a 2.20 ERA in Low-A this year, but at 22 he's yet to be tested and the numbers are far better than the stuff.

Charlie Morton, 25: His 5.43 ERA in 14 big-league starts should improve, but there's nothing in his age, skill set, or development path to project any kind of major step forward.

Potential Set-Up Reliever

Joel Hanrahan, 27: He has the kind of velocity to miss bats at the big-league level, and the kind of command and control issues that give managers ulcers.

Potential Middle Relievers

Nathan Adcock, 21: He's big and he has some velocity, but everything else about his game needs work.

Jose Ascanio, 24: The definition of a middle-of-the-road arm.

Casey Erickson, 24: Although he's posted a 1.75 ERA this year, he's at Low-A and more than a year older than Andrew McCutchen.

Kevin Hart, 26: Currently putting up a 6.35 ERA in six starts for the Pirates, but it's really a bad role for Hart; scouts have always like him much better out of the bullpen. His fastball/slider combination really could lead to some solid years in a relief role.

Aaron Pribanic, 23: He's a ground-ball machine, but that's really the sum of his skills.

Now, with that list in mind, think about a good Pirates team; I realize it takes some very fevered dreaming. How many of those players are a big part of it? Here's a clue-you don't need more than one hand to count them.

This is not meant to hammer on the Pirates, as they actually did what they had to do in dealing away all of those established, middling major league players, but because the players added are themselves so middle-of-the-road, they couldn't expect much back. None of the players dealt were going to play a big role on a winning version of the future Pirates, but it's unlikely that much of anything they got back will either. Instead, it's like they've conducted a garage sale, getting rid of some unwanted junk, making a little bit back, but hardly anything that's going to have a big impact of their future. The true future of the Pirates lies in the draft and their own player development effort, two aspects of the game that the previous captains of the ship failed to chart out on a level that borders on criminal. Only through those two areas can the team find course-changing stars, because the trades mostly boil down to a case of garbage-out, garbage-in.

If there's cause for some consolation, there's still Pedro Alvarez to look forward to. The next big thing for the Pirates didn't come via trade, he came to them in the 2008 draft when they used the second overall pick to select the third baseman out of Vanderbilt. After a slow start that left many scouts scratching their heads, he turned into one of the best hitters in the minor leagues during the second half of this season, batting .370/.469/.618 after the All-Star break for Double-A Atloona before leaving to join Team USA in World Cup play. A pure hitter with an outstanding approach and plenty of power, Alvarez projects as a middle-of-the-order run producer in short order, with the only issue being his defense at the hot corner, as most believe he'll end up at first base sooner rather than later.

A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

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

Related Content:  Managers Of The Year

39 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links


What about Tabata?

Sep 08, 2009 08:40 AM
rating: 1

Exactly what I thought. I know the focus is on players acquired this year, but it is hard to imagine an article on the future of the Pirates without mentioning their best hope for an impact player.

Sep 08, 2009 09:22 AM
rating: 0

They got Tabata last year. KG was just looking at 2009 transactions here.

Sep 08, 2009 09:25 AM
rating: 1

Alvarez was mentioned as well.

Sep 08, 2009 10:25 AM
rating: 1

I'd like Kevin's thoughts on Tabata, and Andy LaRoche as well.

Sep 08, 2009 12:42 PM
rating: 0

I find this topic very interesting. I would be interested in your evaluation of other teams that are engaged in rebuilding, such as the Orioles, the Royals, the Blue Jays, etc. etc.

Sep 08, 2009 08:56 AM
rating: 0

Interesting article.

Looking toward 2011, the Pirates' offense could be interesting. An OF of Milledge, McCutchen, and Tabata has upside. If Andy LaRoche's power can take a step forward and Pedro Alvarez shifts to 1st, the corner infield could be solid. They have a number of options at 2nd, none of them stars, but lots of solid guys, including Delmon Young, Shelby Ford, Brian Friday, Bixler. Not really much on the horizon for an impact SS. Tony Sanchez might be ready in 2011, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to see Doumit moved if he can stay healthy early in 2010 and be a little more productive with the bat.

Pitching is a bigger question. They've got lots of cost-controlled options for #2-5 in the rotation (Maholm, Duke, Ohlendorf, McCutchen, Morton, Lincoln, Alderson, Locke, Moskos, Lorin). But they really don't have anyone who can front a rotation.

I think they can break .500 in 2011 with the lineup and rotation listed above, but it is hard to imagine them becoming serious playoff contenders without an ace. And it isn't like any of their pitchers have the upside to be particularly outstanding #2. Realistically, they have lots of #3-5 rotation guys.

Wonder if they will take a big risk in the free agent market to get a legit #1. Hard to find those guys in a trade and they haven't been quite bad enough (or lucky enough) to find one in the draft.

Sep 08, 2009 09:01 AM
rating: 1
Dr. Dave

Please tell me that Shelby Ford's nickname is either "Cobra" (already taken in Pittsburgh) or "Mustang"...

Sep 08, 2009 11:48 AM
rating: 0

Decent FA 2B
Decent FA SS

Sorry, but without a strong pitching staff, it's hard to see that lineup as especially competitive. Not horrible anymore, and maybe good enough to break the sub-.500 streak, but in terms of amount of talent, it doesn't look that different than some of the recent 4th place Reds teams.

Sep 08, 2009 09:31 AM
rating: 1

In what way is that lineup less horrible then the one from last year that started the season with Bay, Adam Laroche, McClouth, and Nady? With that pitching staff, this is not good enough to break .500 in the near future.

Sep 08, 2009 09:50 AM
rating: 1

less expensive, more club control, and probably higher upside.

Sep 08, 2009 10:14 AM
rating: 0

The cost has absolutely nothing to do with the talent level. He wasn't asking "why is the lineup more advantageous for ownership or the front office". He was asking how that lineup was more talented than the one from the beginning of 2008. And "less expensive, more club control" has nothing to do with that question. The upside claim is valid. Otherwise, you haven't come remotely close to answering his question. It was about talent to break .500, not about setting up long-term for the future.

Sep 08, 2009 12:12 PM
rating: 0

True, but cost control will allow more big draft spending and potentially more free-agent spending, so Decent FA 2B and Decent FA SS become Good FA 2B and good FA SS.

If the owners don't decide to just pocket the cash...

Sep 08, 2009 12:31 PM
rating: 1

you have limited resources, so you want to put your money in the most efficient options. of course cost is important.

Sep 08, 2009 12:50 PM
rating: 0

You guys are missing the point. He was comparing two lineups and asking which was more talented. Saying one is cheaper does not mean it is inherently more talented. Obviously cost matters in the real world with limited resources in planning long-term. But as far as his specific question goes, it had nothing to do with long-term or cost control. He looked at a lineup and said "how is this lineup better than the one in 2008?"

And he quite clearly meant present talent, because he was discussing its chances at breaking .500. It had nothing to do with cost or control.

Sep 09, 2009 12:20 PM
rating: 0

Actually, the lineup that started 2008 proved not to be horrible, but rather productive. I think Pirates fans would be quite happy if a 2010-11 lineup performed to that level. The 2008 pitching and defense, on the other hand, were atrocious. Even without a frontline starter, the rotation is far superior at this point (Matt Morris, Yoslan Herrera and John van Benschoten anyone?), as is the defense. Look, some pieces admittedly would need to fall together, but this is the NL Central we're talking about. If a prospect or two steps up and the current guys make some reasonable progress along the lines of Duke or Ohlendorf this year, the Bucs might not be as far away as popular imagination has it--and mid-80's victories in 2011, say, might be enough to at least sniff the wild-card (or even division). Finally, whose front office group in the NL Central would you trade for the Pirates' right now? While there might be a few, I can think of several I definitely wouldn't want to be anywhere near. The 2009 trades were not the full answer, but they are part of the process. Taken with past two drafts, last year's trades and international activity, at least there is a feasible plan in place. Only time will tell, but things are a helluva lot more promising than this time least year, let alone 2007 or earlier.

Sep 08, 2009 14:29 PM
rating: 1

It's good that the Pirates can still add to the future in the next year or two, especially with a top 3 pick in the next draft.

Sep 09, 2009 11:51 AM
rating: 0

I'd be interested in an article on what the Pirates could be doing different and how other perennial losers have turned it around?

IMO Milledge is exactly the type of player they should have been gunning for with their trades -- go for all upside on every player. Problem I see here is that it appears they've cleaned out their roster of tradeable players and didn't really get a lot back in return.

Is there any reason we shouldn't expect another 10 years of losing?

Sep 08, 2009 09:44 AM
rating: 0

they are stockpiling value by trading immediate impact for future upside. the talent level is only going up, and huntington seems to know what he's doing.

Sep 08, 2009 10:17 AM
rating: 0

"The true future of the Pirates lies in the draft and their own player development effort."

I think that is true, but without the 'garage sale' that future was never going to happen. To lose for two decades is evidence of a failure of unknown depth.

Taking control of the Pirates it would be impossible to know where the faults were. Was every scouting report deficient? Was every level of player development deficient or unrelated with the next? Was major league scouting too inept to evaluate the distance the Pirates had to make up? Was coaching failing? Was in-game management failing? Or was the talent singularly unlucky?

Bringing in a raft of talent from across the spectrum of pro ball allows the Pirates to see how deficient the organization is at multiple levels.

To use the house-rehab metaphor, it allows the owner to check all his tools and materials to see if they really are spec, it allows him to compare his 'straight' and 'level' to somebody else's 'straight' and 'level'. And if it gets any value for the questionable work product on hand, that is just a bonus, the true gain is getting other people's product to use as a comparison.

Sep 08, 2009 09:53 AM
rating: 0
Drew Miller

The Pirates will also have to supplement their drafting with astute bargain-bin finds and signing the right FAs. I'm thinking the Russel Branyans, Dmitri Youngs, and Carlos Penas of the world. Huntington can't decide that the next Matt Morris deal is a good idea, for instance.

Sep 08, 2009 10:27 AM
rating: 0

The Pirates certainly don't look like the next coming of the rays or the rangers but the most encouraging part of the rebuild so far has to be their last couple of drafts, to me, teams not spending big money on the draft has to be the biggest money ball deficiency going in baseball today. Look what the red sox do every year by throwing an extra 500,000 at a two sport athlete in the later rounds, sure they don't all turn out but it's a much better plan than unloading 40 million dollars on a free agent that is anything but a sure thing.

The fact that in the MLB, teams get three years of pre arbitration for their young players at league minimum, has not been taken advantage of by most major league baseball teams. It's simply a luxury not afforded to any of the other major sports.

Sep 08, 2009 10:16 AM
rating: 0

A pretty grim outlook, but one can't just gloss over Alvarez and completely dismiss the two McCutchens. I know the article was about the disbandment of the team in 2009, but these three guys are "part of the plan". Clement/Doumit C/1B (take your pick) isn't a complete loss of competitveness at those two positions. It's not unreasonable to see the Pirates giving the Astros, Brewers, and Reds some fits in 2010 and beyond.

Sep 08, 2009 10:37 AM
rating: 0

Thanks for this, Kevin. What's your take on Garret Jones' ability to continue putting up numbers like the ones he is this year?

Also, would you say that while Lastings Milledge might be the most talented acquisition, Andrew McCutchen is the most talented player on the Pirates? He's a superstar in the making, no?

Sep 08, 2009 10:44 AM
rating: 0

Pirates in 2011 (2011 age in parenthesis):

C: Ryan Doumit (30) / (Tony Sanchez (23)
1B: Pedro Alvarez (24)
2B: Delmon Young (29)
SS: Ronny Cedeno (28)
3B: Andy LaRoche (27)
LF: Lastings Milledge (26)
CF: Andrew McCutchen (24)
RF: Jose Tabata (23)

SP: Maholm (28); Duke (28); Morton (27); Ohlendorf (28); McCutchen (28); Lincoln (26); Moskos (25); Alderson (22); Locke (23).

Again, they have very limited upside amongst their rotation candidates. But pretty much everyone is young now. And they will still be fairly young in 2011.

Obviously, the biggest part of their future success will be the development of their young bats and their ability to find someone to top the rotation. Milledge, Tabata, and LaRoche were all heralded prospects at one point, but none of them have hit for power in the majors. While you can live with a deep lineup of solid good hitters, I think the Pirates need either Milledge/Tabata to develop the power some scouts thought they would. Or LaRoche needs to re-find the power he showed at AAA over multiple seasons (albeit in a good hitters park).

Sep 08, 2009 11:21 AM
rating: 0
Drew Miller

Small nit, but that should read Delwyn Young (who's much older than Delmon and the better hitter right now).

Sep 08, 2009 11:40 AM
rating: 0

I think the next step in the Pirates rebuilding (in addition to drafting and developing players) is to build up the value of the guys they got in return (Young, Cedeno, Clement, LaRoche) who aren't as young as their wave of their high ceiling prospects (McCutcheon, Alvarez, Sanchez, Tabata). The high ceiling prospects will be come your core (similar to the Weeks/Hardy/Fielder/Hart/Braun core in Milwaukee) and the rest you keep churning until you can find another player that can be part of that core. It's also worth mentioning that while the Pirates are cash poor, they will have some money in the next couple of years (money that had been spent on Wilson and Sanchez) that they could use to supplement the core if they happen to peak and start competing for a division/wild card.

Sep 08, 2009 12:06 PM
rating: 1

I fully agree. Might add Garrett Jones to that list.

Sep 08, 2009 14:33 PM
rating: 0

That's part of the reason that there is value in organizational depth and numbers.

Sep 08, 2009 14:47 PM
rating: 0

Here's our predictions of the Pirates' lineup in 2011.
1. ?
2. ?
3. McCutchen CF
4. Alvarez 1B
5. ?
6. ?
7. ?
8. ?
9. Ohlendorf SP

Milledge will have been traded as he will likely be arbitration eligible in 2 more years. Duke and Maholm will also be dealt to fill Nutting's wallet further. It's easy to put question marks throughout the lineup because it's obvious the current leadership has no qualms about turning over any spot at any time. It's far more likely that 7 of the 9 spots will be held by individuals not currently in Pittsburgh's system.

Some may say this is a pessimistic view of the situation. After 3 ownership groups, 4 GMs, 5 managers, and at least 5 rebuilding efforts, only one thing has become crystal clear. The Pirates organization consistently lacks the consistency to see any plan through to fruition - with the obvious exceptions of the construction of PNC Park and the subsequent profit-making by ownership.

Sep 08, 2009 16:45 PM
rating: -1
Brian Cartwright

You really think Ohlendorf will still be here?

Sep 09, 2009 02:28 AM
rating: 0
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

Like all teams in smaller markets, EVERYTHING has to go right for them to compete with the teams in big markets. The Yankees can make mistakes and have injuries, so can the Cardinals, the Phillies, the Angels et al. But smaller market teams need EVERYTHING to go right for them to win a division title.

Small market teams like the Pirates have no room for error, mistakes, injuries and other assorted uncertainties.

But this means nothing to the likes of Sheehan and others who preach the wonders of the "free-market". THERE IS NO FREE MARKET. Do you understand? THERE IS NO FREE MARKET. The "free market" ONLY exists in textbooks.

Baseball will always have a class system so long as it lack an intelligent and resilient salary structure. The NFL allows for the Steelers to win. The NHL allows for the Penguins to win. The NBA allows for smaller markets to compete for titles.

Not Major League Baseball. MLB is a retrograde cartel.

Sep 09, 2009 06:13 AM
rating: -5

Well, yeah, except that St. Louis is not a meaningfully larger market than Pittsburgh.


Sep 09, 2009 06:57 AM
rating: 1

Yes, these sorts of rants tend to ignore contrary evidence.

The A's were a top team for several years despite spending less. Tampa Bay and Toronto were both been competitive last season, despite being in the AL East. And, of course, St. Louis.

Sep 09, 2009 15:47 PM
rating: -1
Other readers have rated this comment below the viewing threshold. Click here to view anyway.

EVERYTHING had to go right for those teams. They are the exceptions that you "free marketeers" use to prove your point.

Every few seasons a small market team does well and you go "Hey look, see I told you so...". But EVERY YEAR the Bostons, the New Yorks, the Chicagos have the ability to compete.

St Louis is a heeee-uge media market. The Cardinals fill up their park all the time.

The little guys need to have EVERYTHING go right for them. They have no margin for error.

Sep 09, 2009 16:43 PM
rating: -4
Ben Solow

This also fundamentally misunderstands the concept of a free market. I think Matt would probably tell you that baseball performs exactly as the Coase Theorem would predict in a free market with low transaction costs.

Free market =/= parity.

Sep 09, 2009 07:28 AM
rating: 0

Cartel. Cartel. Cartel.

Baseball is a cartel.

Free markets exist ONLY in textbooks and computer simulations.

Sep 09, 2009 16:46 PM
rating: -3
Richard Bergstrom

Capitalism in America is a funny kind of concept. You're encouraged to compete, but not allowed to win (i.e. form a monopoly).

Sep 10, 2009 07:05 AM
rating: 0
Bill N

I can't imagine the Pirates competing for 2015. By then they'll have sorted through the current options and seen all their prospects mature. They'll also have the benefit of several more high-end draft pick. The WORST thing that could happen to them is if the team ascends to mediocrity too quickly.

Sep 10, 2009 09:22 AM
rating: 0
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