Chicago Cubs fans are considered the most long-suffering of all fans in baseball. After all, Chicago hasn't won it all in over a hundred years. But ask Kansas City Royals fans or Pittsburgh Pirate fans if they wouldn't change places with those Cubs fans any day. At least the Cubs have been competitive the last ten years or so. At least they have a fighting chance to win most games, even if they don't. To say that the Pittsburgh Pirates are in a slump would be like saying that the Beatles sold a few records. Since the last Pirates team to make the playoffs (1992), the Pirates have a record of 1170-1607 (.421). From 2000 to 2009, the Pirates went 687-936 (.423). The ten years makes for easy division so their average season in that decade was roughly 69-93. Last year, the Pirates finished at their second worst winning percentage since 1993 at .385. This year, they are chugging along at a .331 pace. If that winning percentage stays true to the end, the Pirates will finish this season at 54-108. That's about as bleak a landscape as can be painted in baseball. For this poor franchise and its fans, the one question is: Is there any hope?
The answer is the same as any answer becomes when pondering the future of a baseball team or a baseball player: Maybe. But at least maybe is better than, "Heck no." The trick is getting beyond where they are this year. And this year is horrid. They are absolutely dead last (30th place) in winning percentage, pitcher VORP, runs against per game and run differential. The are next to last in (29th place) in runs scored. They are 27th (out of 30 teams in fielding efficiency. That, friends is nearly the triple crown. They can't hit, they can't pitch and they can't field. It's tough to overlook all of that. No doubt there.
There are some signs of life since the Pirates basically purged their team of its entire starting line up a year ago. Ryan Doumit is a good hitting catcher. Unfortunately, he's not a good defensive catcher and has only thrown out 10% of base stealers this season and has a defensive efficiency rating of -13. But there is good news at this position because one of the Pirates' best prospects is Tony Sanchez, who the Pirates took in the first round of the 2009 draft (Boston College). He has a plus-plus arm, is considered an excellent defensive catcher and is projected to hit in the .270 range. Sanchez could make it to the majors by next year. If he can make that leap and perform as expected, Doumit will be a great back up catcher.
Neal Walker was the Pirates first round draft pick in 2004 and is seeing his first extended major league playing time this year. He's played in 81 games and his slash line is very good: .310/.352/.487. That's one good thing about being awful every year...you get good draft picks. Walker is learning a new position for reasons we'll see in a minute, so his defensive stats at second base are a little rough. But he has the talent to develop into a good second baseman. Walker is also in the midst of an eight game hitting streak. Walker is 24.
And the reason for Walker's shift to second? Pedro Alavrez, the only 5 star rated (according to Baseball Prospectus) stud in the Pirates' system. Alvarez made a huge splash in Spring Training and then had a good minor league year and was called up a while ago. He had a really rough start with lots of strikeouts and few hits. But he's come on of late and is up to .233 with a .315 OBP. He's hit ten homers in 67 games and that is bound to go up as he gets his feet wet. Alvarez has struggled in the field and has 10 errors already. But that should improve with time plus, if he hits, that is what he will be getting paid to do. Alvarez is 23.
A nice story this year has been Jose Tabata. Tabata was signed out of Venezuela in 2004. Tabata has played in 67 games and has a nice slash line of: .307/.360/.420. According to scouts, he has the quickest bat in the Pirates' system. He gets on base. The question is if he'll hit with any power. McCutchen is going to play center, so Tabata will play left and ideally, you'd like to have a thumper there. But Tabata can at least hit and hit very well. Tabata is 21.
Garrett Jones was a lifer in the minors until last year when he became a big surprise and had a great second half. He finished last year with a 147 OPS+. But this year has been a crashing disappointment. His OPS+ is sitting at 95 and his numbers have fallen off quite a bit. He also had a horrid August, so he isn't exactly finishing strongly. The Pirates need to answer whether last year was the fluke or this year. Jones is 29.
And, of course, there is Andrew McCutchen. What an exciting baseball player! McCutchen broke in last year and played 108 games. He finished with a 124 OPS+ with good pop for a lead off batter and a good knack for getting on base. This season is his first full season and he's holding his own with a slash line of: .277/..354/.433. McCutchen has now stolen 108 bases in his fledgling career and has only been thrown out 13 times. Amazing stat. He shows great promise in center with great range. He hasn't put together that part of his game, but it will come.
Shortstop is a problem for the Pirates. Ronny Cedeno is decent enough in the field, but he offers nothing at the plate. The Pirates real hope is the quick ascension of Chase d'Arnaud, a 2008 fourth round draft pick from Pepperdine University. Here is what Baseball Prospectus says about him: "D'arnaud is a classic max-effort grinder, but he's not without tools. Slightly above-average speed and a plus arm buoy his outstanding defensive fundamentals. He displays a solid approach to go with a line-drive swing and gap power at the plate. He's an excellent baserunner and plays with an infectious energy." The Fan likes that "max-effort" part. Sounds like a Pedroia-type player. D'Arnaud is 23.
The Pirates are also short one outfielder. Lastings Milledge still isn't getting there and may never be the player scouts thought he was going to be. The Pirates' best two outfield prospects are Gorkys Hernandez of Venezuela. He was really rated highly but has struggled to maintain that status in the minors. The other good prospect is a very good one in Starling Marte, a 21 year old from the Dominican Republic. He's rated as a top notch defender and the best athlete in the system. But he is still a couple of years out. The Pirates need to find someone to play right who can field some and at least hit league average.
Like most teams, a lot of the success of the Pirates will depend on if the defense and the pitching can improve. Brad Lincoln is the Pirates' best pitching prospect, but he's gotten roughed up in a few starts with the big club. Scouts say his fastball is much too straight (think Farnsworth). If he can find a way to get some movement on his big fastball, it would help a lot. The Fan still likes Zach Duke. He seems like a battler and if he could just get some consistency and lower his walk rate, he could still be a very good pitcher. He shows flashes, but not on a consistent bases.
Ross Ohlendorf is one of the Fan's favorite players, the best 1-11 pitcher in baseball. And as such, it was very disappointing when he got hurt recently. At one time, Paul Maholm looked like he was going to be a good pitcher. But the simple fact is that he just can't punch out enough guys to compensate for the amount of hits he gives up. Perhaps if the defense tightens up, he can be a back end of the rotation type of guy, but he's not a front end guy and never will be, but that's his current role on this team and that is a problem.
The Fan has ragged on Jeff Karstens this year, but the kid hangs in there. What the Fan likes about him is his control. He doesn't walk many batters and thus is K/BB ratio is 2.63. Perhaps if he could get some defense and if he could cut down on the home-run ball (his rate is a really bad 1.6 per nine), he could be a decent enough starter.
But that's it for starters. Forget Charlie Morton or Brian Burres. James McDonald has a good, live arm and has struck out 37 in his six big league starts (34 innings). He has been extremely unlucky to this point and he could be a good starter too. Daniel McCutchen had a real good start last time out but isn't really counted on to be that great a pitcher by most scouts.
The Pirates have four good looking young pitching prospects, but three of them were 2009 draft picks and look to be years away. The Pirates could use one very good starter they can count on to pitch well in most of his starts. Could the Pirates sign a guy like that?
It appears that the Pirates have built a good young core in McCutchen, Walker, Alvarez and Tabata. If Jones isn't the answer at first, they will need to find a new one. Fortunately, there will be plenty on the free agent market this year. But could they or would they sign any of them? The Fan likes the Pirates chances of improving next year. They probably need a new manager, preferably one who has a track record this time. But for once, this team seems like one on the rise instead of simply a perennial loser.