Fixing The Pirates

This year’s trading deadline was nothing new for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They did what they always do: Trade away veterans, and bring in as many young players as they can. In the past year Pirates fans have seen Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte, Jason Bay, Nate McClouth, Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, Tom Gorzellany, Ian Snell, Eric Hinske, Adam LaRoche and Jon Grabow all pack their bags as younger players come back in return. It’s been a long time since the Pirates have had a winning season, and with their beautiful ballpark, its a shame that October baseball is no longer a part of Pittsburgh culture. The Pirates need to turn things around, and get their act together. They owe it to the fans.

So here’s my plan for turning around the Pirates by, gasp, 2010.

Let me start off with this: OF Brandon Moss, OF Jeff Salazar, 1B Steve Pearce, SS Ronny Cedeno, and 3B Andy LaRoche are all wastes of roster spots. None of them gets on base at more than a .340 clip, and they were all born in ’83, so they’re past the age where their incompetence can be disregarded because they’re still prospects. I would waive these guys, and if anyone places a claim GM Neal Hunnington should A. See if he can get ANYTHING for them, if so make the deal. B. If no one will offer players in exchange, just let them go. They aren’t a part of the club’s future, so get rid of ’em.

Now that those guys are gone, let’s look at the roster piece by piece, starting with the outfield.

The Pirates have Andrew McCutchen, Lastings Milledge, Delwyn Young, and Garrett Jones as the outfielders on their active roster. McCutchen is their centerfielder of now and the future. He has a .292/.352/.486 line in his 58 big league games this year. He’s got 7 homers and 9 stolen bases. He’s playing an outstanding centerfield, and he’s already widely considered one of the 5 fastest players in the game. The right field spot should be given to Jose Tabata, currently at triple A, who Pittsburgh acquired last year in the Nady/Marte deal. Tabata spent most of this season at double A with a .303/.370/.404 line. The lack of power is a bit concerning, but that will come with time. Tabata was recently bumped up to triple A, where he has a .371/.436/.486 line in 8 games. Tabata turns 21 on Wednesday, and despite being so young his stats indicate that he can probably handle the big leagues by the spring. So that leaves left field to be battled for by Milledge andYoung. Milledge has the talent, but his disciplinary problems have been an issue everywhere he’s been. On top of that, he hasn’t been able to convert his talent into on-field success. I personally wouldn’t want him on any team of mine because he seems to be a clubhouse distraction, but if he can harness his talent, he could be a force for Pittsburgh. Young won’t ever be a star, but he can hit .290 and get on base at a .350 clip.

You may be asking, “What about Jones?” Jones is older (he’s 28), and hasn’t seen real big league success until this year. However, he’s been great in his big league time this year, with a .291/.354/.642 line in 134 at bats this year, smacking 12 home runs and stealing 5 bases. I think Jones can be succesful beyond this year, and the reason I don’t have him in the outfield battle is because I have him slated as the Pirates’ starting first baseman.

That leads us to to the infield. First is set with Jones, but there are major questions at 2nd, short, and 3rd. The Pirates have been using Delwyn Young at 2nd, without much success. In his 17 games at 2nd his UZR is -1.8. His defense in the outfield hasn’t been much better (-0.9 UZR), but when Paul Maholm is your ace, you need to have solid infield defense with all the groundballs he lets up. Pittsburgh needs to go out and sign Felipe Lopez when he hits the free agent market this winter. Lopez is a solid defender (5.6 UZR), and can hold his own with the bat (.303/.366/.406).  He’s got minimal power, but as long as he gets on base and flashes some leather in the field, he’ll have done his job. He’ll probably command a 3 year deal, making between $7mm and $9mm per year. The Pirates won’t have Freddy Sanchez and his $8mm salary (an option, but it will vest when he reaches a certain number of PA’s for the year), so they can spend that money on Lopez.

Then there’s shortstop. My suggestion: Sign Orlando Cabrera. O-Cab will be 35 as next season starts, but adds a lot to the team. He has a solid glove. Now, you might be freaking out because his UZR this year is a frightful -11.4. Honestly, I think that’s a fluke. Last year his UZR was 14. It was 8 the year before that. Cabrera’s still got a glove. He isn’t the world’s greatest hitter, but a .287/.323/.384 line isn’t the worst around. Don’t forget that Orlando was in a slump for much of the season in Oakland, the most dismal place for baseball. He’s hitting .385 in the past 30 days. Cabrera is a solid player that would help Pittsburgh’s defense, and would be a part of the offense. He currently profiles as a type A free agent, but because Pittsbrugh will have one of the worse records in the league, their first round draft pick will be protected, so they’ll give up their 2nd round pick instead. That’s not a huge price to pay when you’re bringing in a player you’re sure can deliver for your team. Cabrera won’t get a huge contract. I’d say 2 years at $6mm per would be reasonable.

On to third. Everyone knows that Pittsburgh has phenom prospect Pedro Alvarez at double A, waiting to step in as a key part of the team sometime in the next couple of years. He’s tearing up the league with a .320/.389/.558 line in 40 games. Pedro could be with the club next spring, but it’s more like that we’ll see him either as a late arrival next year or in the spring of ’11. The Pirates need to find a short term solution at third to play until Alvarez is ready to take over. Rather than spending more money on another free agent, I say the Pirates just give the spot to inhouse utilityman Ramon Vasquez full time. Vaquez has next to no power, but he can get on base at a .365 clip. The Pirates could take a flyer on free agents like Nomar Garciaparra, Mike Lamb, and Robb Quinlan, but they don’t need to, and shouldn’t, try to find a star to play third for them. They’ll have a star there soon enough, when Alvarez gets to the bigs.

Outfield: L.Milledge/D.Young, A. McCutchen, J.Tabata

Infield: G.Jones, F. Lopez, O. Cabrera, R. Vasquez

Obviously, free agent bids don’t work out all the time, but if the Pirates could aim for that lineup, they’d be looking good. At catcher, Pittsburgh has Ryan Doumit under contract for multiple years. After a great season last year (.318/.357/.501), Doumit has disappointed this year (.234/.250/.426). Those numers don’t tell the whole story though, Doumit has only played in 36 games after missing much of the season following wrist surgery. Doumit can rebound to hit around the level he hit at last year.

Then there’s the pitching staff. The rotation starts with Zach Duke and his 3.40 ERA. After that, Pittsburgh just has a bunch of number 5 starters.

Charlie Morton, acquired in the McClouth deal, has a decent 3.81 ERA. However, opponents are hitting .275 against him, and he has a 1.43 WHIP. That could lead to problems.

Veteran Paul Maholm’s ERA is up at 4.76, with a 1.44 WHIP, and opponents are hitting .288 off him. That’s not the kind of performance the Pirates want from the man who was supposed to be their ace this year.

Ross Ohlendorf has been league average at best. 4.29 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, and opponents are hitting .272 against him.

Jeff Karsten‘s 4.90 ERA and 1.44 WHIP are nothing to brag about either. He’s letting opponents hit .271 against him.

Pittsburgh can’t afford to keep all of these guys in the rotation, pitching the way they are, if they want to contend. The Pirates should look at Eric Hacker, who has a 3.20 ERA for their triple A Indianapolis team. Dan McCutchen, also at triple A, is another arm they should think about promoting. When the off-season hits, the Pirates need to sign 2 starting pitchers. You can’t contend without pitching, and the Pirates need to contend. The free agent market is highlighted by the injury prone trio of John Lackey, Erik Bedard, and Rich Harden. The Pirates, with their low payroll, can’t afford to pay big money for a player they’re not even sure can make 20 starts. Justin Duchscherer, another injury prone pitcher, could be an option, only because he won’t cost nearly as much as the other three. If Atlanta doesn’t pick up Tim Hudson‘s option, he could certainly be another option. Randy Wolf should be a main target. Pittsburgh needs to be careful not to overpay for starters having career years like Jarrod Washburn and Jason Marquis, as they certainly won’t see the return on their investment that they would hope for.

There is a lot of work to be done in Pittsburgh, but if they can work in the basic framework I’ve outlined they could see success as early as next year. The Pirates’ ownership needs to be willing to expand the budget, but the baseball operations staff also has to make smart investments with the money. Pittsburgh fans, just imagine…

Lineup

CF McCutchen

2B Lopez

1B Jones

3B Alvarez

C Doumit

SS Cabrera

RF Tabata

LF Milledge

Rotation

Duke

Wolf

Hudson

Maholm

Morton

No time to get into the bullpen today, but put your thoughts, ideas, and suggestions in the comments.

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