Most Pirate fans still have nightmarish flashbacks to Sid Bream racing around 3rd base to meet a diving Mike LaValliere’s tag in the 1992 NLCS.
Questions of “what if” concerning that game have plagued the city of Pittsburgh ever since. What if Barry Bonds makes a half decent throw from left field? What if Jim Leyland doesn’t use Stan Belinda? What if, what if, what if…?
The questions have changed over the last 16 years of losing Pirates baseball. Years of frustration have left fans asking “why” rather than “what if.” A tell tail sign of where your franchise is headed. Questions of “what if” are signs of life and a chance of winning. When fans and players start asking “why”, you are on your way to being mocked on billboards.
Don’t believe me? Here’s one posted shortly after the Penguins won the Stanley Cup. It read: “The City of Champions… and the Pirates.”
But recently, the questions of “why” have the “what ifs” of hope attached to them.
What if the Pirates kept a few of the players they had just two years ago?
The Pirates to date are just five games under .500, quite remarkable when you consider the fact that they’re ranked 14th in homeruns out of 16 teams in the NL. It’s even more impressive when you take away All-Star, cleanup hitter Nate McLouth, one of the few substantial power hitters in the lineup.
To lose their most talented player and still only be five games under .500 is a testament to the young players on the Pirates roster.
The enthusiasm of young players like Nyjer Morgan, have elevated the play of the small ball Pittsburgh Pirates. Everyone knew Andrew McCutchen was a five-tool prospect. In fact if McCutchen continues at his current pace he is a lock for Rookie of the Year. Unfortunately the Pirates replaced a power hitting, gold glover with the premier leadoff hitter of the future.
How would the Pirates look if they still had the stable of talent they had on the team two seasons ago?
Unfortunately, few of the major contributors to this season’s team came from trades including one of the Pirates’ marquee players. The two major trades last season were the deals sending Jason Bay to the Red Sox and Demaso Marte and Xavier Nady to the Yankees. In those deals the Pirates acquired four players that are currently on the Major League roster. Comparing the players that have cracked the lineup for the Pirates and the projections of those in the minors, their combined numbers do not compare to Bay alone.
This season Brandon Moss (1hr/19RBI/.269) and Andy LaRoche (3hr/32RBI/.274) have combined for only four homeruns and 51 RBI’s. AA prospect Jose Tabata has some upside potential, but will give you much of the same in terms of offensive production.
When you consider that Bay has 15 more homeruns (19), 18 more RBI’s and is batting .282 (eight points higher than any of the aforementioned players) it’s enough to make a marginal fan upset. The fact that LaRoche is adequate at best playing 3rd and I have yet to mention the mediocre pitching of Karstens (3-4/4.80) and Ohlendorf (6-6/4.94), and it’s enough to make your head spin.
Had the Pirates hung on to two of the three outfielders they traded (preferably Bay and McLouth) to go along with McCutchen, we may be talking about the new Tampa Bay Rays.
The Bucs are now the definition of a small ball team. In order for them to score runs they must have every area of their offense clicking simultaneously. Bunting and hit and run plays are the bread and butter of a team built like the Pirates.
Because of the lack of a power in the lineup, the Pirates are likely going to have a tough time entering the dog days of summer. With the All-Star break approaching, teams will be gearing up for the most grueling part of the 162 game schedule. This is the time when teams are most susceptible to slumps and low scoring games. It’s also the time when a few power bats in the lineup can win a few one-run ball games when everyone isn’t hitting well.
Not only have the Pirates left themselves without power bats, but they have also built a very young inexperienced pitching staff. Their 4.27 team ERA will likely go up, and they lack the experienced veteran that has pitched his way through the pain and fatigue of a long season. Here’s where the mentor-ship of a Jeff Suppan or Jason Schmidt is vital to a young staff.
So is there a reason for excitement in the future of Pirates baseball? Yes! For now, rebuilding with youth will be the Pirates greatest strength, and their greatest weakness. Trading experience for enthusiasm brings energy and certain growing pains. The question will be whether or not management will be willing to hold on to the young talent they are trying to develop.
Who knows, “what if” the Pirates are actually stockpiling real talent they intend to keep for the long run? “What if” the Pirates find a way to get a few power bats into the farm system without giving up Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez in the process? They may have the nucleus of young and veteran talent to make a National League contender once again.