Monday, January 03, 2005

Pirates' 2005 Chances

The wonders of capitalism never cease to amaze me. Paul Meyer's been gone what - a week? - and already Jim Molony is primed to corner the market on wishful thinking about the Pirates.

I'm going to pick this apart, because it's fun and because Pirates fans deserve better than this junk. Also, I haven't done a "state of the Pirates" type of column in a while, and it's about that time.

We might expect the writing on mlb.com to be slanted toward the team; if this were the only writing about the Pirates that read this way, I probably wouldn't bother to comment on it. Unfortunately, a lot of mainstream writing on the Pirates looks like this. Here's Molony:

Slowly, but measurably, the Pirates have been building their system and trading away marketable veterans for more prospects to plug into that minor league system.

Also slowly, but measurably, they've been losing those prospects to trades, waivers, and the Rule 5 draft. The Pirates have only brought in one prospect this offseason - the marginal Antonio Sucre - and they've lost Frank Brooks, Tony Alvarez and J.J. Davis. In fact, in the Pirates' last trade, they did almost exactly the opposite of what Molony describes here, trading a marketable prospect (Leo Nunez) for another veteran (Benito Santiago) to plug into that major league system.

Littlefield has had to add a few stopgap veterans to plug holes until the wave of youngsters arrive...

Honestly, if Molony doesn't like actually typing sentences like this, I'm sure he can just bookmark any Meyer column from 2001 to the present and copy-paste a similar sentence.

In 2005, Littlefield will reach his fourth anniversary as GM with a team that has a realistic shot at .500...

Well, I guess the word "realistic" is subjective. More on that later.

...and a system that should soon begin producing the caliber and quantity of Major Leaguers the Pirates must have to contend for a playoff spot.

Where is this coming from? Who are these players? The Cam Bonifay signees who are just now making their debuts are the best hope the Pirates have, and that hope isn't that great. To put into perspective the absurd proclamations about prospects coming from the Pirates' front office and the press, take a look at this list (thanks, Primer) of the top 100 prospects in baseball. These sorts of lists are subjective, of course, but the people who wrote this appear to know what they're talking about, and there are two Pirates on this list, Zach Duke and John VanBenschoten. Neither is ranked above #56. Both players were drafted by Bonifay.

Not convinced? Look at what Trev has to say, or WTM. Not only is the Pirates' minor league system not that great, it's gotten worse under Littlefield, not better.

This is not to say there's nothing in the Pirates' system. One thing they do have is depth. But most of the prospects they have are second-tier prospects, and it's likely that many of those players would fail at the big-league level. It is also likely that many would succeed. Given the Pirates' recent history of blocking prospects who might have some holes in their games - the Santiago trade is a good example of this - it's unlikely they'll show the sort of patience necessary to sort out which of their B-prospects will make it at the major league level. [I copped some of the ideas in that sentence from Russ (post #29) at Baseball Primer.]

In four years, the Pirates will probably still be in the holding pattern they're in now, and people like Molony, Meyer and McClatchy will probably still be saying that any second there will be prospects to save the day. Teams like Cleveland, Milwaukee and even Tampa Bay, who seem poised to take advantage of the sort of favorable draft positions the Pirates have had, are much more likely to be where their fans want them to be by that time.

Back to Molony, though:

This team is not quite there yet. Littlefield has had to add a few stopgap veterans to plug holes until the wave of youngsters arrive, but even so, the 2005 Pirates could be manager Lloyd McClendon's best team yet.

Molony's main arguments in favor of this last assertion are as follows:

-The Pirates have Mark Redman now.
-Some prospects will help in the bullpen.
-Matt Lawton is "proven."
-My favorite: "Continued development is expected from third baseman Ty Wigginton and center fielder Tike Redman." Uh huh.

If Jason Bay can play centerfield, the Pirates might be able to improve dramatically simply by shifting Tike Redman to the bench. It doesn't look like that will happen, however. It seems more likely at this point - and I can't freaking believe this, but I've seen this in several articles now - that Redman will play center and Craig Wilson will move into some sort of job-sharing arrangement with Daryle Ward and Lawton. If that happens, the Pirates will have instantly downgraded their offense considerably from last year, and that's even before considering the loss of Jason Kendall.

I suppose I don't understand where this improvement will come from. Benito Santiago is a massive downgrade from Kendall at catcher, probably 20 runs or so over the season. Where else can the Pirates make up those 20 runs? They might get a few back as Jose Castillo improves. Although Jason Bay and Jack Wilson will probably remain solid players, however, both are more likely than not to take steps backward next year. It's possible that Ty Wigginton will be better than the Stynes/Wigginton/Mackowiak/Hill mess next year, but it's also possible he pulls a Stynes himself, but with worse defense. There is no reason to think that Daryle Ward and Tike Redman won't continue to be among the worst starters in baseball at their positions. Matt Lawton will likely be considerably worse than Craig Wilson, again with worse defense. (If you thought that wasn't possible, just watch.)

The Pirates would probably improve dramatically if Tike Redman, Ward, Wigginton and Santiago lost their jobs and were replaced with Bay, Craig Wilson, Sanchez and House, but that's not likely to happen unless the players in that first group tank so badly they force Lloyd McClendon to bench them, and in that case the Pirates' season is in big trouble.

On the pitching side, Mark Redman will probably help, but there's no reason to think he'll be any upgrade over the two thirds of a season the Bucs got from Kris Benson in 2004. It's true that Redman could keep Ryan Vogelsong out of the rotation, and that would help, but Vogelsong could end up grabbing the fifth spot anyway. Beyond that, where will the improvement come from? Kip Wells could bounce back a bit, and some rookies could indeed help out some. But it would be unwise to expect for Mike Gonzalez and Oliver Perez to be as ridiculous as they were last year. It would also be unwise to expect the same good performances from Jose Mesa, Brian Meadows and Salomon Torres.

Last year, the Pirates allowed 66 more runs than they scored. In order to have a reasonable expectation of finishing .500, they'd have to find a way to close that gap. They made that gap larger by replacing Kendall with Santiago. So where are those 80 or 90 runs going to come from? All the scenarios I can see involve last year's surprises (Bay, Perez, Gonzalez, Jack Wilson, Torres) continuing at the same rates while many others get better. As old readers of Rob Neyer's column will tell you, that's hot stove error number one. The Pirates could finish above .500, sure. Is that a particularly realistic goal for them? No.

Molony ends his column with the following note:

Jim Molony is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

That's nice to know. Maybe next time he'll act like it.

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