Saturday, February 26, 2011

Baseball Needs the Pirates to Return to Competitive Baseball

The Pittsburgh Pirates are a venerable franchise that has been in the National League since 1882. Their history includes such great players as Paul Waner, Honus Wagner, Bob Friend, Willie Stargell, Arky Vaughan, Roberto Clemente and Barry Bonds. They have won five World Series and ten National League Pennants. After 128 years of baseball, the team is slightly over .500 historically. And that is despite an exacerbating seventeen straight losing seasons. In other words, the Pirates are seeped with history and have known success. It just seems really important that the Pirates somehow get back to respectability.

The Fan was thinking about this on the ride to the mall. Story ideas were jumbling around and none seemed to crystallize and the nagging thought that kept occurring is that the Fan hardly ever writes about the Pirates. But then again, few people do. The Fan is active on Twitter and follows dozens of the top writers from around the country. Nary a word is ever said about the Pirates. They have become a persona non grata. They are, probably along with the Royals, baseball's biggest eyesore. But at least the Royals get some love these days for their prospects and the hope for their future. The Royals farm system was rated tops in baseball. The Pirates? The Hardball Times ranked them 16th despite the high draft position they've possessed for the past 17 years.

Let's face it, this team has been bad for a long time. They have finished in last place seven of the last thirteen years. But 2010 was a watershed bad season. The team had been staggering between 95 to 99 losses per season, but in 2010, they lost 105. It was so bad that Andrew McCutchen pulled off the rare feat of personally compiling more WAR by himself than the rest of the team combined. And he only added 3.3 wins. That's bad.

The easy part if so say that the John Russell years didn't exactly work out. Russell managed the team for three years and went 186-299. Woof. that's .383 baseball for three years. Sure, it's easy to give him the goat award, but it's not like he was in that thing alone. Want some other symptoms of how bad it went in 2010? The 52 players that got a plate appearance in 2010 set a team record. The 28 different pitchers that tossed off their mound was also a record. That shows a team that is desperately trying to find something that works. Nothing did.

So Russell is gone. But his partners in the front office are not and the owner is not. Russell certainly failed. But so did everyone else. But despite all the craters around this team and its fans' psyche, there are a few bright spots. The aforementioned McCutchen is a star in the making  Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata have a chance to become stars.

But the real failing is pitching. The high profile hiring of Joe Kerrigan, formerly of the Red Sox, failed dismally and he was fired for insubordination. Every pitcher under his care regressed to the point of viability. Once promising pitchers such as Pat Maholm, Ian Snell and Zach Duke crashed and burned. The Pirates lack of ability in developing pitchers is one of the biggest concerns considering eight of their top prospects are pitchers with high ceilings. Will those pitchers get the instruction they need or will they end up like those other former prospects, now waiver fodder?

New manager, Cllint Hurdle, and pitching coach, Ray Searage, will be asked for miracles here. And quite frankly, nobody is optimistic. Which is a terrible shame because Pittsburgh is a great baseball town with a proud heritage and baseball needs this team to become a proud franchise again. The sad fact is that no team that gets outscored by 279 runs is going to bounce back that quickly.

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