Pittsburgh Pirates' Season Review: An Overview

Andrew KaufmanSenior Analyst IOctober 6, 2008

A tumultuous season for the Pittsburgh Pirates came to an end last Sunday. Once again, the last day of the Major League Baseball regular season was the last day of the Pirates’ season as well.

Pittsburgh’s dreadful 67-95 record—good for the No. 4 pick in next year’s Entry Draft—does not tell the whole story of the Pirates’ season. It is one that filled Pirate fans with optimism for the first time in the while, and it left the team’s fans divided into two factions by the end of the year.

The 2008 season began, for all intents and purposes, when President Frank Coonelly, General Manager Neal Huntington, and Manager John Russell joined the Bucs in the offseason. Fans had been longing for the end of the Dave Littlefield era and were more than happy for the fresh start.

And for the first several months of the season the Pirates were more than worth the price of admission, staying competitive in a tough National League Central and hanging around the vaunted .500 mark.

The catalyst of the Pirates’ first-half success, surprisingly, was the offense, which ranked in the top-10 in baseball in scoring for the first 100 games of the season or so. Center-fielder Nate McLouth and catcher Ryan Doumit had breakout seasons, joining productive outfielders Jason Bay and Xavier Nady to form one of the NL’s most potent lineups.

But despite all this offensive success, the Pirates still weren’t winning. They were en route to finishing under .500 yet again, because their pitching was terrible. 2007’s good stories Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny both had beyond terrible first halves of the season, and as a result the Pirates’ starting rotation had the worst ERA of any in the majors.

So Pirate management did what any team’s management does when it looks like their team isn’t capable of contending—they sold off several parts, namely Nady and Bay, the team’s best player.

But even then there was much to pay attention to in Pittsburgh. At least the trades appeared to be motivated by a desire to build a winner, not just by a need to save money. The Pirates received eight prospects in the two trades, while also dealing relief pitcher Damaso Marte, and each of the eight prospects was rated either a likely Major Leaguer in the near future or someone with potential to become an impact player.

What made Pirate fans most excited, however, was the draft. With the No. 2 pick, the Pirates drafted Vanderbilt third baseman Pedro Alvarez, a highly touted power hitter who was represented by Scott Boras. Then they gave him a $6 million signing bonus. New management was certainly making its mark.

Then, the lows came. In late August and September, the Pirates stopped winning, their prospects didn’t play like legitimate prospects, and they almost lost their prized draft pick.

Without Bay and Nady, the offense sputtered. This was to be expected, but fans watched in horror as new acquisition Andy LaRoche—the supposed prize of the Bay deal—limped to an average well below the Mendoza line.

They also watched Jeff Karstens, acquired in the Nady trade, get off to a torrid start to his Pirate career (he almost pitched a perfect game the second time he took the ball) before struggling mightily the rest of the way.

But nothing compared to almost losing Alvarez. After a deal between Alvarez and the Pirates was announced, he mysteriously never showed up in Pittsburgh. Eventually, it became public that Alvarez and agent Scott Boras were disputing the validity of the contract, which they claimed was signed after the Aug. 15 midnight deadline.

The case went before an arbitrator, but was never concluded as the Pirates and Alvarez agreed to a new contract in which the draft pick received a $6.2 million bonus and higher Major League salaries in the first four years.

So where are the Pirates now? The farm system is better, but the product on the field is the same. For some fans, that’s not acceptable. And, while the Alvarez saga has been resolved, it left a pretty bad taste in many fans’ mouths.

Over the next two weeks, I will take a much more in-depth look at the Pirates’ season, starting with the product on the field, progressing through the Bucs’ farm system, and finishing with a look at where the Pirates stand heading into 2009.

Stay tuned.