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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

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