If trying to identify exactly where the 2010 season went so terrifically wrong for the Pittsburgh Pirates, an easy and not at all incorrect response would be:
- The pitching really, really stunk.
- The hitting was brutally awful for most of the year.
- The defense was pretty bad.
That really fails to identify the root of the problems, though, and if we just work from those statements, it's impossible to know whether or not the Pirates are doing any kind of decent job addressing the issues. So let's start at the top and dig in.
The pitching really, really stunk
As I've said in light of the Kevin Correia signing, this problem was two-fold last year. Their first problem was that they had two guys seriously underperform (Charlie Morton and Brad Lincoln) and the second problem was that they didn't have the depth to deal with underperformance and injuries like Ross Ohlendorf's or Kevin Hart's. So Jeff Karstens got 19 starts, Brian Burres got 13, Dan McCutchen got nine, the team picked up Hayden Penn and Dana Eveland and let them into games to see if they could make starts, etc. etc.
The thing is, the wheels to correct this problem have been churning for a while. Two of Neal Huntington's biggest trades, the Jason Bay deal and the Nate McLouth deal, yielded talented minor league arms (Morris and Locke) that are working their way towards the top of the system. And Huntington's been drafting pitching since he got to Pittsburgh and another one of those arms (Justin Wilson) is working its way up as well. Huntington's best trade gave the Pirates immediate rotation relief in the form of James McDonald, who's likely to be the Pirates' best pitcher next year. And when Joe Kerrigan clashed with John Russell and failed to give guys like Brad Lincoln and Charlie Morton the guidance they needed, he was fired.
The Pirates went into spring training last year with this rotation:
- Ross Ohlendorf
- Paul Maholm
- Zach Duke
- Charlie Morton
- Kevin Hart/Dan McCutchen
They go into it this year with a rotation that looks something like this, save a sequence of trades involving Maholm and Kenshin Kawakami:
- James McDonald
- Ross Ohlendorf
- Paul Maholm
- Kevin Correia
- Charlie Morton/Brad Lincoln/Scott Olsen
There's a good chance that some of these guys will struggle, but Rudy Owens and Justin Wilson should start the year in Triple-A and Bryan Morris and Jeff Locke will both join them quickly, if not right off the bat. Assuming that we do need rotation help beyond the seven guys listed above, there's a good chance it could come from young pitchers with future potential, not dead-end journeymen. We can argue Duke vs. Correia/Olsen all day, but the point is that the attempts to fix the rotation have been in motion for quite a bit longer than a week and though the Pirates pitching staff may not be good or even above average in 2011, it's going to be better and from where we sit right now, it's only going to keep getting better in future years.
The hitting was brutally awful for most of the year
Everyone's familiar with the basic story here. The early-season offense with Andy LaRoche, Aki Iwamura, and Lastings Milledge bombed. The rookies, particularly Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez, took some time to adjust. Everyone, from Tabata and Alvarez to Neil Walker to Andrew McCutchen, went through dry stretches. Garrett Jones and Ryan Doumit had bad years.
Again, this is something that the Pirates have been trying to fix for a while. Having a whole season of Tabata and Alvarez and Walker and none of LaRoche or Iwamura should make the offense a lot better, even without accounting for the natural progression of those players. Like arguing Correia/Olsen vs. Duke, Diaz vs. Milledge is a question that doesn't necessarily have a right answer from here, but it does seem like the Pirates are more dedicated to the platoon in this coming year and that should make both Jones and whoever plays right field more effective.
Part of the problem with the offense last year seemed to me to be the front office leaning on John Russell to play certain players to showcase them for trades (Ryan Church, Ryan Doumit) or simply because they wanted a full impression of them (Jones). Obviously it's hard to say from here, but it seems like the Pirates recognize what they have in Jones and I don't know that they're going to make the same mistake by giving a huge chunk of at-bats to a similar player with similar flaws (John Bowker). Given the young players in position around the diamond, I don't really see a problem with putting the hot bats in right field and first base and trying to manipulate match-ups to your advantage. The Pirates were never going to trade for Adrian Gonzalez or sign Carl Crawford; being smart with the assets you have can sometimes be pretty effective.
The defense was pretty bad
I'm a big proponent of fixing the defense to help the pitching, but I can also see the argument that there's not much point in fixing the defense until you know what you have everywhere else. Neil Walker may be more comfortable (and better defensively) at third base than second, but why move him to third now if you're planning on drafting Anthony Rendon? And guys like JJ Hardy or Brendan Ryan might be upgrades over Ronny Cedeno, but they're not worth overpaying for even by a small amount. Cedeno's bad, but not so bad that it's worth giving up prospects just to shuffle him out of the lineup for a year at this point.
If the Pirates are going to be better in 2011, it's going to be because of Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, James McDonald, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, and maybe Rudy Owens and/or one of his minor league compatriots. That's true today and it was true a week ago when the Winter Meetings started. Teams like the Pirates don't add big-time impact players through free agency; they add them through drafting and trading. Maybe Huntington laid the groundwork for a pivotal trade with the moves this week, be it a trade of a current player Paul Maholm or Ryan Doumit or a future trade of a recently acquired Pirate like Matt Diaz or Kevin Correia.
That means that free agency for the Pirates is the same this year as it's been in the past; try to find some kind of help where it's most needed without blocking young players that absolutely need to play. Last year they got the second part right, but failed miserably on the "some kind of help" part with Ryan Church and Bobby Crosby and Aki Iwamura (who was a trade and not a free agent, but still falls into the same kind of philosophy). I'm inclined to believe that Matt Diaz and Kevin Correia will be more helpful to the team next year than they were last year, but that's not exactly hard to do.