Playing on the theme that I've been trying to follow with Nyjer Morgan and Zach Duke and the Pirates' defense of late, Wilbur Miller writes at Only Bucs today about how valuable Jack Wilson is to the Pirates and that they should probably consider keeping him around. He also does a nice breakdown of where the Pirates' defense improved this year, pointing out that much of the improvement has come in the outfield, which I'm mentioning because it reminded me of this post I wrote over the winter and now I wish I'd hammered away at that point a little more, because it would make me look a lot smarter today.
Ridiculous self-involvement aside, I don't actually disagree with Wilbur's opinion on Jack, but it raises a lot of questions that I don't have answers for and that I think are worth asking. Specifically, I wonder where the balance between offense and defense is for a team like the Pirates. Right now, we're playing a Morgan/McCutchen/Moss outfield that is way, way worse at the plate than the Bay/McLouth/Nady trio was at this time of the year last year, but way, way better in the field.
This year's Pirates, while not a contender by any means except for the nature of the NL Central this year, are a much better team at this point in the year, despite what the record might indicate. We're currently 35-41, while last year we sat at 36-40 through 76 games. This difference is that this year's Pirates have scored 334 runs and allowed 330, while last year's club had scored 370 and given up 413. As Wilbur points out, the improvement of the pitching staff, both in players that are pitching better and players that no longer pitch for us, is a big reason for this improvement, but the defense has certainly played a hand. What's interesting to me is that the defense has only played as big of a hand as they have because of the style of our current pitching staff.
Let's assume for a second that the Pirates' current run differential is indicative of the sort of team they actually are at the moment. This is a big leap; we don't know how the pitching staff will hold up over a whole year, we don't know how Andy LaRoche or Andrew McCutchen will fare over a whole year, we don't know how the two young catchers will hit over a full year. It's still a leap we'll take for the purpose of this thought experiment. We'll assume that right now, exactly as configured (including Ryan Doumit on the DL), the Pirates have the talent of (take a deep breath) a .500 team. We can theoretically bring this whole team back man for man next year, save Adam LaRoche, who can be swapped out for Ryan Doumit at we'll assume a negligible effect to the team (they're very similar hitters in terms of OPS+, LaRoche is better in the field but that probably matters very little at first base).
How far can they ride this exact group of guys? Where is there room for improvement? We'll say that Andy LaRoche might improve as a hitter at third base, so we could pick up a few runs there. Andrew McCutchen might improve in center field, but it's unlikely that his total performance over the year will outweigh what he and McLouth have done combined thus far in 2009, because of his hot start. Brandon Moss can probably hit better in right field, and the bullpen might be a little better with Chavez and Meek being a year old, Dubee being involved, and dropping one of the starters to the 'pen when Brad Lincoln arrives, which should strengthen the rotation.
If we make all of those assumptions as well as the assumption that no one falls off in any way (and be sure that these are a lot of huge assumptions) it's probably not out of the question that the Pirates could make a crazy, Rockies-in-2007-esque run to the playoffs next year by getting hot at the right time. I'm not saying this is going to happen or that I expect it to happen, but I suppose if it did I would be saying things like, "crazier things have happened."
More than likely, next year's Pirates will be very similar to this year's Pirates, better than the Littlefield era efforts, but still a flawed team that relies heavily on pitching and defense to get by. The leaves us with the questions that necessarily have obvious answers. Where do you go to improve this team first? What positions does offense take precedence over defense at? The pitching staff, while better this year, still has room for improvement. Do you improve the pitching with guys like Lincoln, hoping that a staff that gets more strikeouts will rely less on defense? That's actually a pretty standard model for building a team, which means that it wouldn't be nearly as cost effective as trying to exploit an undervalued niche, like defense is like now, to gain an advantage. Of course, in two years, defense won't be undervalued and something else will. Rebuilding a baseball team is not easy.