Offseason Blog Swap: Pittsburgh Pirates
By Mike Brandyberry
It appears I have one last blog swap in me before handing the reigns back over to Matt Van Wormer for the final two before Spring Training. This week we talk with Pat Lackey who runs a Pittsburgh Pirates blog, Where Have You Gone Andy Van Slyke? Not just are the Pirates close to Cleveland in proximity, but also in comparison in baseball economics. The Pirates have developed a young core of players and now find themselves trying to compete with bigger payroll teams in their division.
DTTWLN #1-The Pirates were a lot like the Indians in 2011, contenders for a while, then fading away in August and September. What happened to the Pirates that took them from first place in July to under .500 by season’s end?
Well, the biggest problem the Pirates had in August in September is that they weren’t nearly as good as people thought in May or June or July. They’d managed to rise to first place on the arms of a pitching staff that was something like fourth or fifth in the league in runs allowed on July 25th, but dead last in strikeouts and only in the middle of the pack in walks and home runs. Scoring runs had been a problem all year, both because young players like Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata spent the year injured and under-performing and because veterans like Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz never got started. When the pitching started to falter later in the year, which was more or less expected, the team never stood a chance.
DTTWLN #2-So far it appears the Pirates biggest offseason move is to acquire Casey McGehee from Milwaukee. How much of an impact do you think he will have, and how frustrating is it when the club doesn’t make bigger moves? If the Pirates had the funds, who or what else could they target to improve the ballclub?
I actually hope McGehee doesn’t have much of an impact this year beyond being a solid bench player, to be honest, because if he does it probably means that Pedro Alvarez tanked again and McGehee saw a ton of playing time outside of maybe spelling Alvarez and Garrett Jones against lefties. The Pirates actually turned over a ton of their roster this winter, though much of it was in lateral moves (Ryan Doumit and Ronny Cedeno out, Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes in). I am hopeful that Erik Bedard will help improve the pitching staff quite a bit, but that will obviously be dependent on his health. Dreaming on what the Pirates could do with money is always tough; the club will be paying Barmes and Barajas close to $10 million this year, which is a bit more than you’d like to pay either guy. The Pirates not only have to open their checkbooks, they have to find people interested in playing for them for a reasonable price. When you then consider that they’re still evaluating some young guys, waiting for minor leaguers to come through, and have a ton of players facing arbitration in the next couple years, they’re not in a good place at all to give away a long-term deal that might lure a player like Edwin Jackson, who’d be a relatively good fit for the Pirates. I guess this is all a roundabout way of saying that I’d like to see the Pirates do more over the winter, but I also understand why it’s tough for a team like them to make much way in free agency. Starting next winter, they should have a better idea of exactly what is in the cupboard in the minors and you might start to see some riskier trades and signings, but playing it safe now isn’t necessarily the wrong move.
DTTWLN #3-The Pirates really are like the Indians in many ways, including a solid core of young players. Do you feel the club has a chance to sign any of them long term and how long do you think the window is open for the Pirates to contend?
I do think they probably have a chance to sign Neil Walker long-term, since he’s from Pittsburgh, but it honestly doesn’t look to me like Andrew McCutchen is that interested in sticking around beyond his six years (I’m speculating here, of course, I don’t actually know this for a fact). That might change if the team gets better and they might be able to sign a deal that would keep him in town for a couple extra years, but that hasn’t happened yet. That means that for now, I see the Pirates’ window going through 2015, which would be McCutchen’s last year in town. It’s wait and see after that; the club could still be in a great place to contend if guys like Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon and Josh Bell and Starling Marte all hit their full potential. If not … I’d rather not think about it.
DTTWLN #4-For people that don’t get to see Andrew McCutchen play on a regular basis, explain just how good of a ballplayer he really is. How long do you think it will be before the big markets start trying to pry him out of Pittsburgh and how large of an asking price would the Bucs ask?
It’s really hard to put what makes McCutchen so awesome into words. The best that I can do is to say that he’s so fast that you notice his speed on TV. A lot of times, player speed gets lost on TV because it’s impossible to televise everyone and you can’t take in the whole field the way you can at the park. When you watch McCutchen play, he’ll hit a chopper to short, they’ll flash to the shortstop, and then McCutchen will be two steps ahead of where you think he should be on the basepaths when the camera cuts back to first. Or you’ll see a flyball and note in your head about where you think it’s going to land, see where McCutchen is positioned, figure he’s got no chance to make a catch, and then suddenly he’s there. There are plenty of guys that are this fast in the league, but McCutchen has 25-homer power and a great eye at the plate, which is what makes him really special. He’s the sort of player I’d go out of my way to see, even if he wasn’t on the Pirates.
As I mentioned above, the Pirates have his rights until 2015. I’d guess that other teams have already come asking about him, but there’s just no way the Pirates can get equal value for him right now because equal value doesn’t really exist for one of the league’s best players with four years of cost-control. The club has said a few times that they’d like to work out an extension, though the fact that it hasn’t gone anywhere makes me think there’s a gap between the two sides (likely that the Pirates want options for free agent years and the club doesn’t want to give them away). Realistically, what would that mean for his future with the Pirates? I’d guess it’s that he won’t go anywhere in 2012 or 2013 and the club will then be evaluating where they are, what they need, what’s being offered for him, etc. after that point. They could try and make a run with him in 2014 and 2015 the way the Brewers did with Prince Fielder this year or they could trade him at that point and try to regroup around the other young prospects I mentioned (Cole, Taillon, Marte, Bell, etc.). Obviously, I hope they can lock him down for a couple more years beyond 2015, but it’s still probably too early to know exactly where this will all end up.
DTTWLN #5-What are your realistic hopes for the Pirates in 2012? Where do you think they will finish in the standings and what do they have to do to break that 18 year streak of finishing under .500?
My expectations are not terribly high. I think that the NL Central is getting sold pretty short right now with the departures of Fielder and Pujols, but that the Cardinals and Reds are very, very good baseball teams and the Brewers aren’t that far behind. This is the first time in a couple years that I’m not afraid to say that I think it’s possible that the Pirates could finish .500 or make a dark horse run at a division title, but the confluence of events necessary (Alvarez and Tabata breakout, the pitching staff stays healthy and improves on last year, one or two prospects comes up and makes an impact, etc. etc. etc.) makes even an 82-80 record pretty unlikely this year. I think that the club is probably headed towards a fourth place finish and 75ish wins for a second straight year, though if they can get there with more help from guys like Tabata and Alvarez and less smoke and mirrors from the pitching staff, it’d still be a positive year on the whole.
Sounds much like the answers we could provide another blog about the Indians. Both teams are hoping to overcome economic struggles and take a chance at contention this season. Each team seems to have a window for contention. Thanks to Pat, and hopefully good day are around the corner for both the Tribe and Pirates.
Photo: The Pitt News