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2007 Team Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

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2006 W-L: 67-95 (5th place)

2006 Pythag: 70-92

2007 Depth Chart

Coming:
Adam LaRoche, Masumi Kuwata, Luis Matos, Nick Green, Kevin Gryboski, Einar Diaz, Jose Hernandez, Jim Brower, Franquelis Osoria, Yoslan Herrera

Going:
Mike Gonzalez, Jeromy Burnitz, Joe Randa, Victor Santos, Ryan Vogelsong

The Pirates In a Nutshell:

This is my fourth team preview. The previous three have been of teams that were also awful in '06: the Cubs, Devil Rays, and Royals. Despite their suffering, each of those teams offered plenty of opportunity for optimism. Maybe not pennant-type happy-talk (I'm looking at you, Cubs fans), but something to look forward to. No such luck for the Bucs. The only notable improvement in the '07 edition will be Adam LaRoche at first base, and the Pirates had to part with a dominant reliever to get him. There are some nice young players on this team and some others who might turn into nice young players, but Pittsburgh is a disaster of an organization with no .500 season in sight.

Offense:

Let's start with the good news. Jason Bay is great, Jason Bay is cheap, and Jason Bay will be back. The lowest OPS+ of his career so far is 135. Last year was the second year in a row he got on base in nearly 40% of plate appearances, and at age 27, you have to figure he'll be good for a couple more seasons like that.

More good news: Freddy Sanchez is also back and cheap. While we've been waiting for years to see if Sanchez would put it together, I don't think anybody expected he'd win a batting title. As it is, I wouldn't count on him repeating, but he will provide above-average production from third base.

Now, in the category of qualified good news: Adam LaRoche will help the offense. Last year's Pirates first basemen hit 276/356/426, while LaRoche was among the league leaders in slugging, at 285/354/561. He played better once Bobby Cox promoted him out of a platoon role, so it's possible he could build on his breakout season if Jim Tracy sends him out there every day. (Note I say "possible.") Whether the Pirates came out ahead in the deal is another story, but it's fair to say that the offense will benefit.

It's equally fair to say that the offense desperately needs such a benefit. The team batter splits at Baseball Musings do a good job of illustrating the point. In addition to the "production" out of first base last year, here are a few other choice tidbits:

  • Catcher: 273/330/350
  • Second Base: 261/311/385 (that even included 18 Sanchez starts!)
  • Shortstop: 281/326/469
  • Center field: 254/326/378
  • Right field: 249/305/434
Almost every team will have a position or two like that, especially if they've punted on offense to keep somebody like Adam Everett in the field. But there's a big difference between focusing on defense and putting six easy outs in your lineup.

Even the most optimistic scenario for the Pirates doesn't solve enough of those problems. It's conceivable that some combination of Ronny Paulino, Jose Castillo, Jose Bautista, Nate McLouth, and Chris Duffy will give the Bucs a couple more positions with average production. A full season of Xavier Nady might mean that right field is more respectable. But despite all those possibilities, only first base seems like a lock for a big increase in offense.

Putting it all together, it's not hard to see the Pirates scoring a few more runs in 2007, but it's tough to imagine an increase of more than a few. Sanchez will take a step back, and LaRoche's arrival will cancel that out. Nady will out-OBP Jeromy Burnitz's forgettable .289 rate, and perhaps Castillo and Bautista will combine for something better a .299 OBP, as well.

The Bucs were dead last in offense in the '06 NL. They might close the gap between themselves and the Padres or Brewers, but I'd be surprised if they didn't finish dead last again in '07.

Starting Rotation

You've heard this song before: the Pirates have some great young pitchers, and not all of them have reached their potential. That's still true. While the pitching staff as a whole had an ERA right in the middle of the National League pack, the rotation was not nearly as strong as the bullpen.

Part of the problem is that 50 starts came from the underperforming pack of Victor Santos, Oliver Perez, Shawn Chacon, and Kip Wells. Even Chacon's 5.48 ERA looks good next to Perez's 6.63 or Wells's 6.69. Tom Gorzellany's superb 11-start audition bodes well for the future, but before we get too excited, let's take a broader look.

Here's my best guess for the starting rotation, alongside their PECOTA-projected ERAs:

In the grand scheme of 21st-century baseball, that's not a bad rotation. It compares favorably to the positional averages I offer in this article. While there's no ace in the group, only Chacon is below average for his place in the rotation.

This is how pre-season optimism is born: look at the front five, get happy about the front five, and quit. Of course, stuff happens, and that's what tanks poorly-run franchises like the Pirates.

After those five pitchers, the pickings are slim. While it wouldn't surprise me to see Dave Littlefield pick up a Santos-esque guy in the next couple of weeks to compete with Chacon, that won't improve the situation much. What the Bucs need is depth, and it's depth they don't have.

Judging from the MLB.com depth chart (which, admittedly, isn't the best representation of how the picture might look in June or July if a starter goes down) the Pirates rotation depth consists of three main guys: Sean Burnett, Brian Bullington, and John Van Benschoten. While Burnett was once a decent prospect, Rich Lederer points out statistical indicators that lead one to question his stuff. Van Beschoten hasn't pitched since '04, so I think we can forget about him. Bullington also missed all of last season.

In other words, the cupboard is bare. Making things worse, Jim Bowden has signed every possible mediocre quad-A pitcher in baseball, so there aren't a lot of Tim Redding-esque guys out there to bring in as non-roster invitees. If Duke, Snell, Maholm, and Gorzellany all make 30 starts, the Pirates might take that long-awaited step forward thanks to the starting rotation. More likely, one of those guys is going to get hurt, and the results are going to be ugly.

The Bullpen

After Bay and Sanchez, the bright spot of the '06 Pirates team was their bullpen. Of the six guys who made the most appearances in relief--Mike Gonzalez, Salomon Torres, Matt Capps, Damaso Marte, John Grabow, and Roberto Hernandez--the highest ERA belonged to Grabow at 4.13. Few teams could claim such a consistent pack from one to six.

Dave Littlefield celebrated by trading the best two of those six for average corner bats. Nobody needs to lose any sleep about parting ways with Hernandez, but the loss of Gonzalez is a different story. Not only was he a quality reliever in his arbitration years (and thus, signed relatively inexpensively), but he could be among the best closers in the game.

It might be easy to overvalue a guy like that, who has never thrown more than 54 innings in a season. But few people can do in 50 innings what Gonzalez can. He's struck out 183 men in 155.7 career innings. That's better than 10.5 K's per nine, and means that 28% of the hitters who have come to plate against him haven't taken a step toward first base.

Instead of six strong relievers, the Pirates will enter the season with four. One of those--Marte--is becoming more and more of a lefty specialist, and two others--Capps and Grabow--have limited major-league track records. That isn't to say that all four of them won't perform at the same level, but in Gonzalez's absence, each of them will be throwing higher-leverage innings, and more replacement-level talent will be taking over for them.

To put a number on those changes, you can start with Gonzalez's 3.5 wins above replacement, as measured by WXRL. While Torres might be more valuable pitching well in the 9th inning than in the 7th and 8th, he won't be 3.5 wins more valuable.

Pittsburgh does have plenty of options to fill out the rest of the pen, but that's better news for the '08 club that it is for this year's. After Torres, Marte, Grabow, and Capps, we'll see some combination of Jonah Bayliss, Jim Brower, Kevin Gryboski, Masumi Kuwata, Marty McLeary, Franquelis Osoria, Brian Rogers, Josh Sharpless, Shane Youman, and probably a few other pitchers to be named later. One or two of those guys will probably look great for a month or two; the others will struggle to hold on to the few leads the Pirates offense manages to build.

All Together Now

It's not pretty now, and it won't be pretty in the near future. Littlefield has, by luck or design, ended up with a nearly complete starting rotation in their pre-arbitration years all at the same time. He's done nothing, though, to take advantage of that incredible financial benefit.

Of course, not all the fault can be laid at the GM's feet--it isn't his fault that the Bucs are barely spending more on payroll than they're receiving in revenue sharing. It is the GM's fault, however, that more than 15% of that money is going to Jack Wilson.

I (and others) wrote at length about what's wrong, and how the organization might fix it. I don't need to rehash all of that--odds are you've heard it before. What's too bad is that so much young talent--Bay, Duke, Sanchez, and others--is going wasted on what will probably be a 70-win team until they hit free agency.