Entering the week, the Pittsburgh Pirates were on pace to win 74 games. Just two more than that would give them their best record of the decade, but neither goal seems achievable since the trade of two of the most integral players to an offense that ranks third in the National League in runs scored, as well as one of the team’s most dependable bullpen arms (and a left-hander at that).

But 74 wins or 76 wins or any figure in that range really isn’t the point. The Pirates haven’t made the playoffs or had a winning record since 1992, the same year that Ross Perot was running for president and Microsoft released Windows 3.1. The new administration of general manager Neal Huntington and team president Frank Coonelly inherited a mess, with not only a bad major league club, but also a poor minor league system that had been decimated by poor drafts and, in all fairness, an incredible string of bad luck when it came to injuries.

The team that began the 2008 season was not going to be the team to put the Pirates back on the map, but it was capable of being competitive. Instead of some sort of Pyrrhic victory that might be earned by the team’s best record of the decade, the Pirates decided to dump the season and begin a true rebuilding process. Adding eight new talents signaled a rebirth for the club, and while the return for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte disappointed many, Pittsburgh did an excellent job on deadline day of leveraging Boston’s desperation in order to extract maximum value for Jason Bay.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Pirates and where they stand right now, and the more I consider it, the more I like this team’s future. It’s hardly ideal, and we’re not talking about a situation like that of the prospect-packed Rays here, but while there are still problems to be solved, there are also real reasons to be optimistic in Iron City. Let’s start by going around the diamond:

Catcher: Optimistic, with caveats. Ryan Doumit is one of the better-hitting catchers in the game, he’s cheap, and he’s under control for a while. That said, he comes with huge concerns about his ability to stay in the lineup consistently; last year it was wrist and hamstring problems, but those were just additions to the long series of health issues that Doumit has suffered since being a second-round pick in 1999. Those injuries are one of the reasons it’s taken so long for Doumit to establish himself; during his first three full seasons in the minors, he played in just 184 games. He teases with All-Star possibilities as a hitter, but at the same time, you need a backup plan with him, and the Pirates have no real catching prospects of note in the system.

First Base: Neither good nor bad. Adam LaRoche has yet to duplicate his success with Atlanta, and just when it seemed like that might never happen, he hit .390/.472/.805 in July before hitting the disabled list with a rib cage injury. He’s not a star, but he doesn’t create a huge hole in the lineup either-he’s a solid placeholder until someone better comes along. Could that someone better be 2008 first-round pick Pedro Alvarez? Alvarez is hardly a great defensive third baseman, and with the acquisition of Adam’s brother Andy, Alvarez might end up quickly transitioning to either first base or left field.

Second Base: Push. After winning the batting title in 2006, Freddy Sanchez slipped a bit last year, then slipped a ton this season. Like LaRoche, he’s picked it up of late, hitting .302 since July began, and the Pirates are on the hook for him in 2009, with a 2010 club option for $8 million. He’ll surely stick around next year, as the Pirates have no replacement for him in the minors.

Third Base: Highly optimistic. The hot corner has long been a troublesome spot for the Pirates, and they hope they’ve found their long-term solution in Andy LaRoche. As I wrote in BP2008, “Everyone loves Andy LaRoche, except, perhaps, for the Dodgers,” and that still seemed to be the case. He was the All-Star third baseman on the official Players Who Need a Change of Scenery squad, and playing in an environment where the pressure of every mis-timed strikeout or error meant a trip to Las Vegas (can you believe that’s a negative thing?) could be the key to him turning into the star-level player that many scouts have been projecting him to be for years.

Shortstop: Still a nightmare. One of the more frustrating combinations of a non-productive starter (Jack Wilson) with a bad contract, paired with a system with no short-term prospects at the position. The Jack Wilson era likely ends after 2009, as Pittsburgh will almost gladly pay $600,000 to avoid giving him another $8.4 million, but as far as who takes over the position at that time, it’s a bit of a mystery. The organization spent their third- (Jordy Mercer) and fourth-round (Chase D’Arnaud) picks on polished college shortstops without a ton of upside, and they already have one of those in the system in Brian Friday, a third-round selection from last year who has plus defensive skills, good speed, excellent contact abilities, and no power.

Outfield: No holes, and more players than positions. That’s a pretty surprising outcome considering that the team just traded two everyday above-average corner men in Bay and Nady. But those moves did not create holes, as much as they created opportunities. For 2009, the three starters with likely be Nate McLouth, Andrew McCutchen, and Brandon Moss. McLouth has been one of the more surprising performers in the game this year, already slugging 22 home runs on the season when PECOTA saw him maxing out at 13. If there’s one deficiency in his game, it’s his defense, as he merely holds his own in center and is far better suited for a corner, making his offensive breakthrough not only important, but a necessity. McCutchen is penciled in as the everyday player up the middle, provides an immediate upgrade with the glove, and over time should develop into a multi-faceted force at the top of the lineup. Moss was expendable for the Red Sox-he’s not good enough to be an everyday corner outfielder for Boston, but he still should be one of the top 60 corner outfielders around. Finally, don’t forget about Jose Tabata. The Pirates are hoping that this deal will be a wake-up call for the outfielder once considered to be one of the brightest young hitters in the game. With a second chance, and more of an opportunity, he could turn it around.

With that, let’s take a quick guess at the 2010 starting nine for the Pirates:

Catcher:      Ryan Doumit
First Base:   Pedro Alvarez
Second Base:  Freddy Sanchez/TBD
Third Base:   Andy LaRoche
Shortstop:    TBD
Left Field:   Nate McLouth
Centerfield:  Andrew McCutchen
Rightfield:   Brandon Moss

That may not be enough to create a murderer’s row, but it can be the parts for putting together a young lineup with several players holding impact potential. The Pirates were an above-average offense entering the year, but with the recent deals, they’ve shored up their future on the mound while ensuring that runs will be scored for years to come.

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