Developing a Core: The Pirates Are Stockpiling High-End Talent

Andrew Kaufman@akaufman23Senior Analyst IAugust 1, 2009

BRADENTON, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 22: Jose Tabata #31 of the Pittsburgh Pirates poses during photo day at the Pirates spring training complex on February 22, 2008 in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by Rob Tringali/Getty Images)

Yesterday in Pittsburgh, Lastings Milledge looked like he belonged in the No. 2 spot in the Pirates lineup behind Andrew McCutchen, hitting two RBI singles in the Bucs' victory, his first game in a Pittsburgh uniform.

Elsewhere, Jeff Clement hit two home runs in his debut with the Indianapolis Indians, the Pirates' AAA affiliate.

So far, so good.

Clement, part of the five-player package the Pirates received from the Mariners for Jack Wilson and Ian Snell this week. And Milledge, whom the Bucs acquired with Joel Hanrahan from the Nationals earlier this year in exchange for Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett, are just two of the many high-ceiling prospects that new Pirates general manager has added to the organization over the past two years.

Jose Tabata, Andy LaRoche, and Gorkys Hernandez have joined the Bucs in the past year. As has Time Alderson, whom the Pirates acquired from the Giants for Freddy Sanchez Thursday, only hours after getting Clement from Seattle. These are names baseball fans have been talking about for years, players who in many cases were supposed to be the futures of their respective organizations. And now they're all Pirates.

Neal Huntington was able to acquire a tremendous amount of talent by buying low on each of these former prodigies. Almost every one of the above prospects (Alderson is probably the only exception) had fallen out of favor with their former teams, either due to lack of of early Major League production (LaRoche, Clement) or attitude concerns (Milledge, Tabata).

But there's no reason to believe the talent isn't still there. Throw in first-round draft picks Pedro Alvarez and Brad Lincoln, as well as young pitchers Jeff Locke and Bryan Morris, and the Pirates suddenly boast a formidable collection of 10 young talents. Of the 10, only Lincoln was a member of the club when Huntington took over after the 2007 season.

All 10 of these players have their warts, and it's entirely unrealistic to expect all 10 to have long, productive Major League careers. But they don't need them all to. If just four or five, or even two or three, of these players realize their potential, they will join Andrew McCutchen to give the Bucs a real core to build around.

If that happens, the Pirates have the potential to boast a pretty powerful lineup (imagine a top four of McCutchen, Milledge, Tabata, and Alvarez, all at the peak of their potential) and perhaps a top-of-the-rotation starter such as Lincoln as well. Suddenly the complementary pieces, the Ross Ohlendorfs and Tony Sanchezes and Branden Mosses of the world, start to look pretty useful. 

But what if Milledge, Tabata, or Alvarez don't pan out? Maybe Clement rediscovers his "light-tower power," or Hernandez adds more gap power and becomes a reliable No. 2 hitter, or Alderson fills and gives the Pirates a dynamic pitching combination. There's not a lot of margin for error, but there's certainly more than has existed in Pittsburgh in a while.

And yes, there will be growing pains. Just today, for example, the Pirates suspended Morris for "unprofessionalism." It's not going to be easy, and going through a full-fledged rebuilding process after the team has already had 16 straight losing seasons in a row—is not an easy thing for many fans to stomach.

But it's a necessary evil, and if it all works out right, the Pirates will have a serious chance to compete as early as 2011 or 2012. 

As sad as it sounds, that's the best future outlook the Pirates have had since Sid Bream crossed home plate in 1992.

For the rest of the season, what happens with the Pirates' many talented young players is much more important to the team's future than its won-loss record, so I plan to spend most of my time covering those young players.

I will take an extensive look at the Pirates' organization, likely on a position-by-position basis, as well as at the 2009 draft signings (August 17, 2009 is a very important day for Pittsburgh) and the prolonged effort to sign Latin American free agent Miguel Angel Sano.

The season may be lost, but there's a lot more to be accomplished in the Steel City this year.