2008 MLB Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates
Manager: John Russell
Arrivals: RP Elmer Dessens, RP Casey Fossum, SS Chris Gomez, P Byung-Hyun Kim, 1B Doug Mientkiewicz, SP Jaret Wright
Departures: 3B Jose Castillo, RP Shawn Chacon*, RP Saloman Torres
Offseason grade: F
The Pirates actually have a pretty solid 1-2 combo at the top of their rotation in Tom Gorzelanny and Ian Snell, who both threw over 200 innings and posted ERAs of 3.88 and 3.76, respectively, in 2007.
Pittsburgh needs to get both these pitchers signed long-term if they ever hope to compete in the division. There were rumors flying around in the offseason, however, that the Pirates were considering trading Snell instead of giving him a well-deserved long-term deal.
If you don't think the Pirates have the worst front office in baseball, you're mistaken.
Want more proof?
Last year, at the trade deadline, the Pirates did the Giants a huge favor by trading for Matt Morris and his bloated contract. So now, instead of paying $9 million towards a new contract for Snell or Gorzelanny, the Pirates are paying that $9 million to an aging starter who will struggle to keep his ERA below 5.
The Bucs' rotation is rounded out by two lefties who appeared to have pretty good potential but have fizzled out, big time.
Zach Duke went 8-1 with a miracle 1.81 ERA over 14 starts in 2005, leading some Pirates fans to think he was going to be the savior of their rotation.
Oh, how wrong they were.
Duke has struggled mightily since 2005, going 10-15 with a 4.47 ERA in 2006 and 3-8 with a 5.53 ERA in just 19 starts last year. It'll be interesting to see if he can ever regain that mojo he had in 2005, but at this point, that seems pretty unlikely.
Paul Maholm put up decent stats for a pitcher in his first full year in the majors in 2006, going 8-10 with a 4.76 ERA. Those seem to be pretty good numbers to build on.
Maholm, however, went 10-15 and saw his ERA rise to 5.02 last year, indicating that he may not be as good of a pitcher as he was billed.
If Duke and Maholm can get their acts together and post good ERAs, the Pirates may have a respectable pitching staff. That's pretty unlikely, though. John Russell will have to heavily rely on Gorzelanny and Snell in 2008.
Starting rotation grade: C
A lack of depth really is going to tax the Pirates' bullpen this year. Matt Capps is an excellent closer with pinpoint control, only walking 16 batters over 79 innings last year.
The often erratic Damaso Marte had a surprisingly good 2007, posting a 2.38 ERA out of Pittsburgh's bullpen.
However, Russell should be wary of relying solely on Marte in the 8th inning to set up Capps. Marte pitched in 65 games, but only threw 45 innings: typical LOOGY stats. He held lefties to a .091 batting average, but righties hit .271 against him. If Marte is relied upon as the 8th-inning setup man, he could run into some problems.
After Capps and Marte, however, the Pirates bullpen is a ragtag group of pretty bad or inexperienced pitchers.
Of them, only John Grabow and Blown-Save Kim have thrown more than 80 innings. Grabow is nothing more than a mediocre middle reliever and Kim is, well, terrible. Pirates fans should be thanking God/Roberto Clemente that Kim wasn't guaranteed a spot in the bullpen after signing a one-year contract.
The rest of the pitchers competing for spots in Pittsburgh's bullpen are all wholly inexperienced.
Between Ty Taubenheim, Evan Meek, Franquelis Osoria, Romulo Sanchez, Juan Perez, Bryan Bullington, Dave Davidson, and Jon Van Benschoten, Russell doesn't have a whole lot to choose from for the final spots in his bullpen.
Look for the players I just listed to be constantly shuffled between AAA and the major-league bullpen throughout 2008. None of them will likely be able to establish himself as a full-time, major-league reliever.
Bullpen grade: D+
The Pirates will trot out another weak lineup that probably won't give Gorzelanny and Snell the run support they deserve this year.
Freddy Sanchez is really the only member of this lineup worth writing home about. Look for another solid .300 year from Sanchez, who, despite his best efforts, is just not the impact hitter the Pirates so desperately need.
That impact hitter should be Jason Bay, but after a dismal 2007, who knows where he'll end up in 2008. A return to his 2004-06 production would be a huge boost to the Pirates lineup, but it still wouldn't be enough.
Adam LaRoche and Xavier Nady will most-likely hit around .275 with 20-25 home runs and 80 RBI this year—decent numbers—but not enough to protect Bay if he hits like he did over that three-year span.
Jack Wilson somehow managed to hit .296 last year, but don't be surprised if he gets dealt sometime before the trading deadline for pitching help.
Ronny Paulino saw his batting average dip from .310 in 2006 to .263 in 2007. A return to his 2006 numbers would be another nice boost for the lineup, but look for Paulino to hit around .270 with no more than 15 home runs this year.
Jose Bautista saw his batting average rise in his second full year at the MLB level, but still doesn't appear to be more than a .260/20/75 hitter at the best.
Between Nyjer Morgan, Nate McLouth, and Chris Duffy, the Pirates have a few decent talents competing for the centerfield/leadoff spot. Duffy showed flashes of potential in 2005 but struggled in 2006 and 2007, suggesting that he may be nothing more than a good fourth outfielder.
McLouth is the most highly-touted of the group, as he has decent power and good speed. Despite his .258 batting average last year, he posted an OBP of .351 which, for all intents and purposes, would get the job done as the Pirates leadoff hitter.
Morgan has played the least of the three at the MLB level, as he got called up and played in just 28 games last year. It likely will come down to either Morgan or McLouth for the starting centerfield spot, but my bet is on McLouth.
This is a Pirates lineup that lacks a legitimate power threat if Jason Bay has another down year. Even if he returns to the level of play he was at from 2004-06, the Pirates will still field a pretty weak lineup that won't get them anywhere in the division.
Lineup grade: D
The two losers of the centerfield spot will most likely find themselves on the bench, giving the Pirates good speed and defense, but not a whole lot of hitting.
Doug Mientkiewicz gives the Pirates another good glove off the bench, but as a pinch hitter, he's not somebody to be relied upon.
Chris Gomez was the "big" offseason signing by the Pirates and could take over for a traded Jack Wilson, but until then, he's nothing more than a decent bat and backup infielder.
Bench grade: C-
It's a real shame that the Pirates can't field a halfway decent team. PNC Park is, in my opinion, the nicest baseball facility in the United States, and doesn't deserve to have such a horrendous team playing on its beautiful green grass.
Pittsburgh's front office really needs to get their heads out of their asses and start spending some money to field a winning team. While Pittsburgh may be football-crazed—and now, to an extent, hockey-crazed, thanks to Sidney Crosby—it was once a great baseball town and could be once again.
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