Hal and everyone can project Lord's flight's own terminus an instant before impact. For a brief moment that Hal will later regard as completely and uncomfortably bizarre, Hal feels at his own face to see whether he is wincing. The distant whistle patweets. Lord does indeed go headfirst down through the monitor's screen, and stays there, his sneakers in the air and his warm-up pants sagging upward to reveal black socks. There'd been a bad sound of glass.
-David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jes
Six months ago, I sat in a rental car outside of a gas station in Bradenton, Florida with my dad and my uncle.
"OK, Patrick," my dad said, "I want a real answer to my question. How many games are the Pirates going to win this year?" He'd been asking our entire trip, and I hadn't answered because I was trying to really get a feel for what the 2011 Pirates were capable of.
"I think they'll win 70-75 games," I finally told him.
"That's way too many. You saw how awful they were last year. How does a team that was that bad make such a big leap forward?"
For the rest of the ride back to our hotel, we talked about the four young position players that the Pirates had their hopes pinned on and the way that young players can improve by leaps and bounds. About the improved depth in the rotation and on the bench and just in general that it seemed like the Pirates should have for the coming season. About the way that the team improved once they ditched guys like Andy LaRoche and Lastings Milledge for guys like Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata, to the point that they were really maybe a 95-loss team in the second half of 2010 instead of a 105-loss team.
For 100 games, the Pirates did practically nothing that I said in the car that day that would make them better, and they were in first place. Jose Tabata slumped and got injured. Pedro Alvarez slumped, got injured, and came back worse than he was before the injury. Neil Walker was solid but unspectacular. Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz, the guys that were supposed to be the depth, were terrible. The pitching staff was improved but mostly existing on smoke and mirrors.
I was torn. On one hand, it was easy to see the signs of an impending collapse. On the other, the Pirates were good! It'd been such a long time since we Pirate fans have had anything at all to cheer, that I wanted to kick back and enjoy the ride as it was happening. Winning is fun, no matter how your team is doing it. After such a long, long time without any winning to enjoy, you'd have to be stone cold dead inside to not enjoy what the Pirates did in the first part of 2011.
When the collapse came, though, it was worse than anyone could've expected. They didn't fade away as the Brewers took over and their schedule got tougher. They didn't even burn out. They supernovaed and collapsed into a dense mass that sunk in the standings. It was brutal to watch. I never though the Pirates were that good over the first 100 games, but I never thought they were a bumbling team of idiots that was worse than the Astros, either. Seeing at eam play so well and fall apart so completely is maybe the hardest thing I've ever had to do as a Pirate fan. It was brutal.
It’s hard to judge a season that swings so wildly. It’s hard to remember now, but there were good things that happened for the Pirates this year. Andrew McCutchen tailed off at the end of the season, but he played like a superstar for the better part of five months. Charlie Morton and quite a few relievers took big steps forward. That gave me quite a bit of faith in the people that teach pitching in the organization, which is important given that most of the team’s prospects are pitchers. The defense was improved quite a bit, especially in the outfield with the shifts gone.
The problem is that plenty of bad things happened, too. When 2011 opened, we hoped the Pirates had four good young hitters they could build an offense around. Jose Tabata spent most of the year injured, a troubling trend in his young career, and didn’t develop any power at all. Neil Walker didn’t quite regress back to his bad Triple-A numbers, but he looks more like a back of the lineup guy than someone to anchor the middle or top of the order. Pedro Alvarez got lost at sea and I’m not sure anyone has any idea if he’s coming back. That means that the offense is Andrew McCutchen and eight other guys, which isn’t going to cut it. The four minor league pitchers that were supposed to bridge the gap from Paul Maholm to Jameson Taillon and Garrett Cole all struggled. Rudy Owens fell apart at Triple-A, Jeff Locke moved slower than expected through Double-A, and Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson are in the bullpen. Besides Starling Marte, it looks like it’s possible that there’s not much help on the way from the minors until Cole and Taillon, who are still a ways away from the Majors.
When I predicted 70-75 wins in spring training, I honestly thought that the team coming that far forward in 2011 could be the precursor to an 85-win season in 2012. Today, it seems more possible that this 72-win season could be the precursor to a 65-win year in 2012.
That’s the curse of the first half the Pirates had: I’m kind of dreading the thought of the team going back to being a mediocre, 65-70 win team the entire season next year. It’s going to be hard to watch. The Pirates do have a plan and they are moving in the right direction, but I’m not really sure how quickly they’re moving anymore or exactly how far they’re going. That’s a frustrating place to be, especially after we got a taste of something other than last place for 100 games this year. The Pirates lost 105 games in 2010 and they only lost 90 in 2011, but I’m not sure that I’m more optimistic about next year than I was at this point a year ago.
That sounds really negative, and it is. It’s not all negative, though. If Pedro Alvarez turns things around and Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon move through the system the way we hope they do and Starling Marte becomes an impact player at the big league level in 2012 and Neal Huntington makes a couple of shrewd moves, the Pirates will be in an awfully good place pretty quickly. That’s a ton of ifs, for sure, but it’s been a long time since you could look at the Pirates and their minor league system and see a contender. It might be a little hazy, but it’s there now. That’s a start.
I think how the Pirates should act depends on how you (or, more importantly, the FA) feels about the Pirates ability to contend next year. The Brewers certainly didn't underperform any of their pythagorean projections, and Gallardo and Grienke weren't otherwordly this year, the Cards are unlikely to get any better, the Reds could, and the Cubs and Astros still look like disasters. I suppose its possible there is opportunity to contend, but I think the Pirates are better served by looking to 2013, which means waving Maholm goodbye, hoping Doumit declines arbitration as opposed to picking up his options, and hope for bounce backs from Alvarez, Tabata, Sanchez and the like. If the Pirates young core players have a bounce-back year as a group but the Pirates lose 90-95 games, I don't see that as a disaster.
If the words "makes a few shrewd moves" is a significant part of the off-season plans, then trouble is brewing. I'd also disagree on the competency of the pitching - too many pitches in the minors fell down or regressed to say that the Pirates are good at minor league pitching development. Ray Searage might be good at focusing retreads in the bullpen, but I don't see it as an organizational strength.
@schuleg I'd disagree pretty strongly about the pitching. Besides Jameson Taillon, who had a very successful first professional year, Kyle McPherson made huge strides this year, Nick Kingham looked awfully good, Colton Cain had a good year in West Virginia, Zack Von Rosenberg at least showed some progress and promise even though he had a rough season. The guys that "fell down" are either the (relatively) older ones that weren't supposed to have high ceilings (Wilson, Owens), or guys acquired from other teams with known warts (Morris).
As for Huntington's ability to make "shrewd moves," well, trading to fill in the gaps to improve a team is different than trading veterans for prospects. And it's awfully hard to do anything good in the free agent market when no one wants to play for you. I understand why people have reservations about what he's done in his offseasons so far, but I don't think I'd completely give up hope on him making a good move to help the team over the winter (maybe next winter, probably not this one).
So, hand waving away poor performances or "older" or "lower" ceiling prospects at higher levels in deference to younger and "higher" ceiling prospects at lower levels (who rarely dominated even considering age appropriate-ness seems a bit disingenuous. Wilson was a Huntington pick and Owens was a prime early example of the Kyle Stark/Troy Buckley pitching plan who flopped at AAA. As far as the others - McPherson is an 87 DOB and would be considered old for High A or AA, Kingham has a low K rate in a SS league and a very long way to go, and Taillon (limited by his pitch count) has worrisome peripherals (HR rate in particular). The known warts players were all acquired by Huntington with the pretense that those warts would be ironed out by the player development staff. That they have not does not excuse the failure to do so - in fact, even the "break-trhough" MLB pitchers (Morton and MacDonald) had and still have warts.
I don't see a player development machine or many prospects turning potential into production aside from Robbie Grossman, and certainly very few that consistently produce at the higher levels (Presley being one). The overdraft philosophy has to produce and so far, the results are underwhelming. Hand-waving away what you don't like due to ceiling, age or how the player came to the system is cherry-picking, plain and simple. The failure of the previous wave of prospects at higher level indicts the minor league or scouting staff - take your pick. The tentative start of the "young guns" does the same.
Huntington made good moves - I am not disputing that. My point was that relying on a GM (any GM) to materially improve the team by a few "shrewd" moves is probably wish-casting. Can Huntington, specifically, perform such miracles? To date, the evidence suggests no - even with the clear wins in some of the trades, the Pirates have not improved, despite good performances from the acquisitions. In some ways, it is the same as the Littlefield era - despite raping Chicago for Wells and Fogg and getting good production from them, the large inefficiencies remain and burden the team. When the centerpiece of the Huntington era Alvarez does not turn in to Longoria or Zimmerman but Alex Gordon and that ain't helping.
I'll quibble - Moore's DOB is June, so he pitched in the SAL as a 19 yo (obviously finished as a 20 yo. The age calculations most sites use is based on the age as of July 1). That was the intent of my age comment. So I will rephrase for accuracy - a half year difference in age at the same level is close to a wash.
@schuleg I won't argue that Taillon is a slam dunk, but one year is a big difference when we're talking 19 and 20 in the low minors.
@whygavs Tampa has a distinct plan for developing pitchers and it seems to be working - Shields, Davis, Niemann (even), Hellickson, Moore, Cobb and that doesn't even count Price. Yes, Taillon (who I am not suggesting is a bust, not yet) pitched a level above Moore at the same age. But the SAL numbers for both are instructive, not in quantity but quality. < href="/http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=moore-001mat">Moore</a> and <a href="/http://www.baseball-reference.com/minors/player.cgi?id=taillo001jam">Taillon</a>. A think one year of difference in age is close to a wash - pitching at 19 in the SAL is not that uncommon as opposed to 20 yo, but even with that age advantage, Taillon had his issues, as he should. It's not the slam dunk some people might think that Taillon will dominate at some level, that's my point.
This is my point, I think - Tampa (and SF and others) seem to have a program that matriculates pitchers through the system and they produce and develop at each level and become major league caliber pitchers. The Pirates do not and my contention that ignoring what happens to low-ceiling older prospects at higher levels is disingenuous when the bonus babies don't produce while developing (if they are developing). And Moore only cost 115k to sign - significantly less than most if not all of the Pirate overdrafts.
@whygavs Natural ability and "stuff" should still account for a fair to significant number of strikeouts. I would also point out that de-emphasizing "stuff" for control doesn't seem to be working at higher levels - guys that "get" it in A ball have struggled with the adjustment to high levels when the majority of hitters do know the strike zone. I think this is my argument - whatever the Pirates are doing to instruct pitchers seems to be detrimental at higher levels. Now, could some of the bonus babies rear up and blow away levels? Perhaps, but they all have what I would consider significant flaws or haven't developed according to plan, so to speak. It does take time, and developing pitching is a hit-and-miss proposition. I think the Pirates have been more on the miss side, to date, in my opinion. Still, this is the path they have chosen and patience is the key. If it turns out the Pirates can't develop pitching, Huntington has signed the death warrant for the organization (and his job as GM).
@schuleg And I do agree that I'd hoped someone would just break out like crazy in the low minors and it's disappointing it hasn't happened yet. As mentioned in my first posts this morning, I've started a post called "Where is the Pirates' Matt Moore?"
I wouldn't lump Taillon into that group, though. Using Moore as an comparison point (not exactly fair since he's not a first rounder, but he's the hot pitching prospect right now), Taillon's two levels above where he was at the same age. He's really not age-appropriate right now and he really did make some starts that were flat-out dominant in WV.
Anyway, I certainly appreciate the conversation. These are all definitely worthy topics to think and talk about in the off-season.
Well, the Pirates are also selling tickets. I don't really put much stock into anything Frank Coonelly says about prospects (he was the one that compared Owens to Kyle Drabek) other than to note when he says it.
As for minor league pitcher strikeouts, I'm not sure how much stock I'd put into any numbers below about Bradenton, simply because I know the Pirates put a huge emphasis on control first and I think they treat individuals differently. Von Rosenberg took a big jump in K's from State College to West Virginia; it's the only reason he's still interesting. That was part of what put Owens on radars as well. Cain struggled a bit with control in State College, so his control improved and his strikeouts dropped with the Power this year.
@whygavs The second chance gambit was a big gamble and the fact the Pirates received so little from it should certainly sour anyone on their ability to re-order talent, so to speak. Yes, the prospects had value at one time, but the fact that none produce value for the Pirates in a meaningful way is a large demerit against the scouting and development - you might think you can fix them, but you have to be able to fix some.
As far as hitting prospects - maybe. Aside from McCutchen, every other Pirates hitting prospect has flaws that limit their value and production. The Pirates need hitters and offense in the worst way and even Marte has concerns (K rate and sustaining power - a lot of guys hit the ball hard in Altoona). That aside, developing hitters is supposed to be easier than pitchers - the Pirates have gone all in on pitching (aside from Bell) so they have to "hit" on the few hitters they have. I'm not convinced one way or the other about Sanchez - his strength was always defense and that really fell down this year. That's the biggest concern with him, aside from conditioning and maybe even attitude now.
You know what attracts free agents - money. The Royals signed Meche and had to outrageously overspend to get him. Losing teams attract free agents with no other options and that won't change and I would argue shouldn't change. Then again, signing Overbay instead of letting Pearce or Jones sink or swim and think Diaz was a piece necessary on a 70 win team shows a fundamental mis-understanding of the team, I would argue. The performance of the team this year won't suddenly spark interest - the Pirates are maybe 2-3 years away from sniffing contention (made easier by the state of the NL Central). This organization should be focused on building from within. Trades haven't worked out, significant free agents won't come so the only hope is that scouting and development pays off - and that could be a very long trek to fruition.
The Pirates did not - they were very public in their conviction that Owens was the real deal. Wilson, an advanced college pitcher that moved quickly, has not improved and his regression tells me the Pirates don't know how to magically develop pitching prospects - pitchers with flaws seem to retain them or not improve them to become viable legitimate prospects that can maintain value as a starter. So you are correct that this is not surprising, but when you comment that the results of the Low-A prospects merit praise, I disagree and point to the regression of the pitchers at higher levels. When the Pirates start producing pitchers like San Fran, TB, Colorado or even Minnesota used to, then they have a process. Until then, it seems that they only get credit for spending money.
None of the Pirates pitchers rack up Ks period - the emphasis away from the strikeout to "develop" pitching doesn't seem to be working. Then again, are we only supposed to look at the Low-A subset?
Last point - it does take time, and most won't amount to anything. However, the Pirates prospects are age appropriate or maybe older in some cases to the league and it is not uncommon for young pitchers to establish some dominance with just pure stuff (which I would argue Taillon, for example, did not do or any of the other bonus babies). If the Low-A contingent barnstorms through the system over the next few years, then the point is proven, but if not it just proves developing pitchers is extremely variable.
My larger point was that in the first few years of his tenure, Huntington was specifically targeting guys in trades that already had known problems (LaRoche, Milledge, etc.) in the hopes of finding a guy that they could fix that would quickly help the big league team, because there was no help coming from the minors. Those moves mostly flopped, but now that there's at least some kind of a foundation in Pittsburgh and a little more help coming (at least from Marte and maybe from Sanchez, depending on how much you blame the weight loss for his struggles this year, which I'm admittedly skeptical of but not willing to completely give up on the guy), Huntington should have a different focus in his off-season and in-season dealings. The same goes for free agent signings: the Pirates have obviously had trouble convincing people to play in Pittsburgh, but with a stronger season, a pretty well-publicized run in the first half, and guys like Andrew McCutchen, it's possible that a different player pool opens itself up to him and that it changes the outcome of the off-season.
I'm certainly not counting on these things or disagreeing that Huntington's made some bad moves when it comes to acquiring talent about above Double-A. I'm just saying that sometimes, a change in the conditions changes philosophy and makes things a little easier on the GM.
@schuleg I'm not hand-waving. Even when Owens was dominating the low minors, people said that he probably didn't have a ceiling above a third or fourth starter. Now it's clear that he doesn't. Same goes for Wilson. Since the day he was drafted and it's always been clear that Wilson had control problems that would catch up to him. That doesn't make him a bad fifth round pick. Obviously as a fan you hope that the good numbers translate to the Majors, but that doesn't mean it should be surprising when they don't, especially when there are people cautioning you about some of these guys.
We could go point by point here: you're right that McPherson might not have a tremendous ceiling, but he made a big step forward in his control this year, and he seems promising. Maybe he'll crash and burn where Owens did this year, but at least he's worth watching when it really didn't seem like he was six months ago. None of the high school guys the Pirates draft ever rack up K's in State College because of the emphasis on fastballs, but from what I've read, everyone that watched Kingham pitch has come away more impressed with him than any of the similar guys that have pitched there the last few seasons.
It's certainly true that none of the later-round guys the Pirates have drafted have had huge breakouts yet, but for high school pitchers, at least, this sort of thing takes time. Now that I'm thinking about it, this is probably something worth a deeper look.