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September 21, 2009

Kiss'Em Goodbye

Pittsburgh Pirates

by Baseball Prospectus

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Baseball Prospectus' Pre-season Projection: 64-98, sixth place
Current record: 56-91, sixth place

The Pirates racked up their 17th consecutive losing season for a very simple reason: they have very few difference-making players.

Buster Olney of ESPN.com's Take

What went wrong: "There are just not that many guys on that roster who can play for a first-division team," said one NL scout. "Even bad teams usually have a handful of impact players, but most of their pitchers would be back-end-of-the-rotation type of guys for a playoff team, and besides Ryan Doumit and Andrew McCutchen, I don't see anything but complementary pieces." The Pirates' front office clearly recognizes this, because during the course of the season, they held a tag sale and moved all their regular position players other than Doumit and third baseman Andy LaRoche.

Biggest puzzler on the drawing board: How do you inspire the team's demoralized fan base? The Pirates' faithful is fed up with the losing, with the rebuilding programs, with all the long-term plans. But the reality is that Pittsburgh is probably destined to have at least another couple of hard seasons, as the new regime of president Frank Coonelly and GM Neil Huntington continues to implement the latest restructuring. Executives with other teams see progress, saying that the Pirates are collecting more high-ceiling players like McCutchen and third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the former first overall pick of the '08 draft who is expected to arrive in the big leagues next season. But until the team actually starts winning, the Pirates' fans will probably stay away in droves, and it remains to be seen whether owner Bob Nutting will remain patient, in light of the losing.

The Baseball Prospectus Take

The Pirates are on pace to win 62 games this year, just two less than PECOTA's initial pre-season forecast; maybe the system knew they were going to trade half their Opening Day roster by midsummer. The Pirates have actually overachieved, given all the manpower that's been shipped out. McCutchen, projected to hit .263/.335/.403, has shown much more pop than expected since his promotion, going .274/.346/.455, with 40 extra-base hits since his June call up. Garrett Jones, an even bigger surprise, is hitting .298/.366/.589, with 19 home runs in 265 at-bats. As for the pitchers, Ross Ohlendorf and Zach Duke have both been solidly above expectations-which should help make the latter a solid trade candidate this winter-while Paul Maholm's peripherals have tracked well ahead of his ERA all season. The list of outright disappointments is much smaller: Doumit has battled through injuries and ineffectiveness, and LaRoche again failed to recreate his minor league power numbers in The Show.-Shawn Hoffman, Baseball Prospectus

Key Stat: 17

There's no getting around this one. For all the positive steps the Pirates have made, 2009 will always be remembered as the team's 17th straight losing season, a new record among major American sports franchises. But if we're looking forward, the key number might actually be 8.9, as in how many millions of dollars the Pirates spent in this year's draft. That makes for an average of $9.4 million in the first two years of the Coonelly-Huntington administration, dwarfing the $4.2 million that Kevin McClatchy and Dave Littlefield spent in their (mercifully) final draft in 2007. Combine that with the team's first significant investments in the Dominican Republic in decades-for both players and infrastructure-and the Pirates' player-development system is finally getting the capital it has so desperately needed for the last 17 years.-Shawn Hoffman, Baseball Prospectus

Rumor Central

Free Agency: The Pirates may be committed to building through their system, but they need some reasons for people to show up at PNC Park in the meantime. The good news is that they have only about $24 million committed to the roster for 2010, though arbitration will add perhaps another $5 million. One name tossed around in Pittsburgh? Rick Ankiel. If the Cardinals intend to keep Matt Holliday-an expensive proposition-they'll be out of the market for anything else. A short right-field porch in Pittsburgh could be a draw for Ankiel, who has been battling injuries all year. They could get him on the cheap.

Depth Chart: Finally equipped with some talent in their organization, the Pirates' big concern is freeing up space for youngsters to shine. That could mean Doumit or Maholm might be moved (hey, why not). Just because the Pirates aren't spending a lot on the big-league roster doesn't mean they're totally cheap. The franchise has invested record amounts in prospects internationally and in the draft. Perhaps inspired by Tampa Bay-remember the Rays of a few years ago, with a $19 million payroll?-the Pirates feel like they have a plan. The Brian Bixler or Phil Dumatrait bobblehead nights? Well, that's just the gravy.

Who 2 Watch 4: Brad Lincoln, RHP

It's no secret that the Pirates need pitching (let's face it, they pretty much need everything), but help is on the way. Their 2006 first-round pick, Lincoln missed all of 2007 recovering from Tommy John surgery and was no more than mediocre in 2008. But his plus velocity and very good breaking ball returned this year, and he should compete for a slot in the big-league rotation next spring. As an added bonus, he's a fantastic athlete who was the best hitter on his college team and went 4-for-7 at the plate for Triple-A Indianapolis.-Kevin Goldstein, Baseball Prospectus

Draft recap
Signed: 23 of 51
Spent: Despite leaving 28 draftees unsigned, the Pirates spent more than $8 million on their first 10 selections, and didn't pay more than $2.5 million to any of them.
Hit: Colton Cain, LHP (235th overall): Cain has the look of a number-one starter, bringing low-90s velocity with a promising breaking ball. Pittsburgh paid him late-first round money ($1.125 million) but getting him that late is a solid pick.
Miss: Both catcher Tony Sanchez (fourth overall) and right-hander Victor Black (49th) were reaches that saved the Pirates a little money and an extended headache, but as a result they left an awful lot of superior talents on the table with these two picks.-Jason A. Churchill, ESPN.com

The Bottom Line

As Huntington said at the trading deadline, "We don't feel like we've broken up the 1927 Yankees." Of the 15 or so major league players that the Pirates have traded over the last two seasons, none had ever lifted the Pirates above 75 wins, and only Ian Snell was an obvious candidate to be part of the next competitive Pirates team. (And there were extenuating circumstances in his case, to say the least.) It's tough to pick one particular deal that's been a blow-away win, but looking at the organization from 30,000 feet, the increase in overall talent from the time Huntington took over until today is striking.

That gap should only continue to grow in the next year, as the team continues to load up in the Dominican and once again picks in the top five in next June's draft. Don't expect the losing streak to end in 2010, but for once, there may actually be some light at the end of this tunnel.-Shawn Hoffman, Baseball Prospectus

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

7 comments have been left for this article.

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