As a baseball fan, I have never been a part of a longer, stranger season than the 2009 Pirates' season. The Pirates entered the season looking like a 95-loss team with an awful pitching staff and three impending free agents. They exit the season as a 99-loss team with surprising pitching depth and a bunch of question marks. They traded half of the position players that took the field on Opening Day, two starting pitchers that seemed like the future of the franchise just two short years ago, and one of their best relievers. They set a record for both Major League Baseball and all American sports by racking up their seventeenth consecutive losing season. Before a late season hot streak to avoid 100 losses, they dropped 23 of 26 games.
And despite all of this, I'm not kidding even a little bit when I say that on October 4, 2009, I feel better about the future of the Pirates than I have at any point since the inception of this blog. The turnover on the big league roster this year was remarkable and it gets most of the focus from the public, but internally the focus has been on rebuilding a minor league system to feed that big league club and strides made there are what's important for the future of the Pirates. Keep reading after the jump.
Consider the steps forward made by the Pirates top four prospects entering the season. Andrew McCutchen broke out in a big way, hitting 16 homers and 17 triples between Pittsburgh and Indianapolis. His .286/.365/.471 line showed both patience and pop for a 22-year old and his speed on the basepaths is unlike any other player I can remember, Nyjer Morgan included. He made the leap this year, and he's the most promising young player the Pirates have had in years. Pedro Alvarez shook off his rust in Lynchburg and hit .333/.419/.590 in Altoona with 27 homers combined between both levels in 542 plate appearances. He'll start next year in Altoona, but he won't be there for long. Jose Tabata shook off an April injury that caused him to miss all of May and part of June to hit .357/.397/.491 with July in Altoona, then held his own in August with Indianapolis. Brad Lincoln flashed a 3.82 K/BB ratio between Altoona and Indy and looks to be fully recovered from the Tommy John surgery.
More importantly, those four are no longer the only four prospects in the system. First round pick Tony Sanchez hit very well in his professional debut with West Virginia and seems to be on a fast-track to the majors. After picking him, the Pirates added a ton of pitching depth to the system with Victor Black, Brooks Pounders, Zach Von Rosenburg, Billy Cain, Trent Stephenson, and Zack Dodson. They also acquired Tim Alderson, Brett Lorin, and several other young pitchers and they saw Rudy Owens break out in a big way in West Virginia and Lynchburg. A few other players already in the system, including Starling Marte, Quincy Latimore, Chase D'Arnaud, Robbie Grossman, and Quinton Miller also had promising seasons. With Alvarez and Tabata likely to start 2010 in Indy, the Pirates could have legitimate prospects at every level of the organizational ladder for the first time in I don't honestly even know how long.
In the end, they don't give out World Series trophies for minor league depth. The Pirates were bad this year and there's no getting around that. What is important to remember, though, is that they weren't necessarily bad because of the trades that were made. Freddy Sanchez played just 25 games with the Giants, hitting .284/.295/.324. Jack Wilson only played 31 game in Seattle, hitting .224/.263/.299. With the Braves, Nate McLouth hit .258/.357/.414. The only player the Pirates really missed were Adam LaRoche, who had his typical late-season hot streak in Atlanta, and Nyjer Morgan, though Lastings Milledge surprised by doing a more than credible job with the glove in left field after the Morgan trade. Even with LaRoche, Wilson, and Sanchez, the Pirates were 8-17 in July. The team likely would've been better with those three, McLouth, and Nyjer Morgan, but probably not a whole lot better.
Even in a 99 loss season, we learned a lot about the players that donned black and gold this year. We learned Brandon Moss and Delwyn Young aren't answers, but Andy LaRoche and Lastings Milledge might be. We saw Ross Ohlendorf take a huge step forward with Joe Kerrigan, that Zach Duke can be effective with a strong defense behind him, and some real flashes from Charlie Morton, Evan Meek, and Joel Hanrahan.
After Huntington's bloodletting this summer, the Pirates are almost done tearing down. From this point forward, they're building up. That means that even the games that seem to be meaningless in August and September tell us something. The players in Pittsburgh now have their chance, but if they can't perform, there are finally players in the minor leagues to push them. It's a cliche to say that it's always darkest before the dawn, but even though things were as bad as they've ever been for the Pirates in September, 2009 gave us lots of reasons to think that things won't have to be like this forever.