Getting to Know the Enemy: Pittsburgh Pirates

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Los Angeles Dodgers

The 2010 season is almost here, and while we count down the days to Opening Day, why not take a look at the Brewers’ NL Central competition?  Every Monday until the start of the season, I’ll preview one of the Brewers’ division rivals.  In addition to recapping the last season, we’ve tried to get bloggers to answer a few questions about their team, because really, who knows what’s going on better than the team’s own fans?  Let’s get this started by taking a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates. 

2009 Finish: 62-99, 6th NL Central

Last Season in a Nutshell: Another year, another last place finish — the Pirates finished in the NL Central cellar for the 4th time in 5 years.  By the end of the year, the roster looked completely different compared to Opening Day — Nate McLouth, Eric Hinske, Sean Burnett, Nyjer Morgan, Adam LaRoche, Ian Snell, Jack Wilson, Tom Gorzelanny, John Grabow, and Freddy Sanchez were traded for a total of 18 players.  While a lot of recognizable faces are gone, the future looks brighter than it did a couple years ago.

2010 Prediction: 5th place.  Things are looking up, but this team reminds me a bit of the 2005 Brewers that managed to go .500 — one or two of the club’s future stars are in the majors, but more reinforcements will be necessary before they can be taken seriously as a contender.

Q&A: Pat Lackey of Where Have You Gone Andy Van Slyke?

We saw Andrew McCutchen hit the big leagues last year, and he didn’t disappoint (.836 OPS in 108 games).  Any chance we see Pedro Alvarez or Jose Tabata make their debut this year?
I’d honestly be pretty shocked not to see Alvarez in Pittsburgh by June or July. He caught fire in Altoona last year and has spent a good chunk of off-season out in Arizona working on his conditioning. He’s more or less done everything the Pirates wanted him to do since showing up in camp out of shape after his long layoff last spring. I don’t know the last time I’ve been this excited about a Pirate prospect.

Tabata’s got a chance of making his debut, but I think it’ll be as a September call-up. Some fans want to see him straight out of camp, but he’s just not ready for it yet. He had a great run in the AFL and I’d love to see him get a full year at Triple-A to see if the power all the scouts see for him starts to materialize.

Obviously, when you lose 99 games there were a lot of things that went wrong last season.  Is there anything that went “right” last year that has you looking forward to 2010?
You’re gonna think I’m crazy here, but I’m really excited for 2010. This is the first time in quite a few years the Pirates have a bunch of young players I’m interested in watching develop, as opposed to the Jack Wilson/Freddy Sanchez era when we all knew what we had going into the season. Obviously McCutchen was great last year, as you mentioned, but Lastings Milledge and Andy LaRoche both finished the season strong while Ross Ohlendorf and Charlie Morton made some real strides on the pitcher’s mound in the latter part of the season.

Garrett Jones — legitimate power threat or one-year wonder?  A lot of Brewer fans were caught off guard when he hit 4 home runs in 9 games against Milwaukee.
Honestly, we were as surprised by those homers as you. I’m still kind of torn on how to view Jones. Obviously a guy that hits 21 homers in 82 games has some legitimate power, but I’m kind of baffled as to why it never manifested before he turned 28. So is he a 40-homer guy? I’m not sure about that, but I definitely wouldn’t be shocked to see him go deep 25 or so times this season.

The Marlins received a public flogging from the player’s union for their frugal ways, but the Pirates managed to escape that criticism (despite the fact it looks like the Bucs will have the league’s lowest payroll this year).  Do you think the Pirates should be looked at for “not trying to win,” or were they just a poorly run organization?
The Pirates were terribly run earlier in the decade during the Dave Littlefield/Kevin McClatchy years. Most of their budget was put into assembling a 70-75 win big league club while things like scouting (both domestic and international) and as a result their draft budget were allowed to atrophy. No one complained about their payroll then because it was never the lowest in the league, but the club wasn’t going anywhere.

With Frank Coonelly and Neal Huntington taking over in late 2007, they’ve built a new Dominican facility with a renewed focus on international spending and they’ve spent as much or more than anyone on their 2008 and 2009 drafts combined. It’s true that they’ve traded a huge portion of the big league roster, but they were mostly players with no long-term future in Pittsburgh. Having the payroll bottom out is a necessary evil of rebuilding, I think, and it’s just the phase the Pirates are at right now. Spending money on a free agent that will play ahead of Lastings Milledge or Andy LaRoche is just counter-productive to the team right now.

Will the payroll go up in the future? Ownership swears that it will as it becomes necessary to compete and of course people are suspicious, but they have delivered on things like the Dominican Academy and the draft in recent years. I guess the shorter answer to your question is that I’m fine with the Pirates’ payroll where it is in 2010, but if it’s at the same place in 2012 then something about this rebuilding process isn’t going right.

A lot of people are picking the Pirates to at least finish ahead of the Astros this year.  Baby steps, for sure, but how long until you see the Bucs breaking through and competing in the Central?
It won’t happen in 2010, but I’ll be nice and optimistic and say that if things go right this year with the guys I’ve mentioned above (specifically Alvarez, Milledge, LaRoche, Ohlendorf, Morton, Tabata, and McCutchen), they might really surprise people in 2011. Damn, there I go getting my hopes up again.

The Pirates have the second pick in June’s draft.  Assuming Bryce Harper goes #1 to Washington, is there a leading candidate for the Bucs at #2?
I honestly don’t follow this stuff all that closely at this point in the season. I see a lot of people with pitchers (like Anthony Ranaudo) as the guys right behind Harper, but given the strategy the team took last season, I’d be surprised to see them take a pitcher in the first round. If Harper is off the board my gut feeling would be that they’ll go with whoever the best college position player available is and try to load up on pitching later in the draft by grabbing high school guys with signability questions and try to lure them in with over-slot contracts. It’s what they did in 2009 and it worked reasonably well (at least to date, we really can’t say until we see guys like Zach von Rosenberg, Billy Cain, and Trent Stevenson really pitch), so I see no reason they wouldn’t do it again.

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