Analysis: From the prospect level to the players to the owner to the real people in charge, the Pirates' coming season appears pivotal
April 4, 2010 8:00 AM
Alberta Shermann, 80, holds some of the memorablilia from her four decades as a season-ticket holder. She decided not to renew her plan this season. "They've killed something in me, and I'm done," she said.
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
PHILADELPHIA -- In about 24 hours, the Pittsburgh Baseball Club will take the field for its 124th season, and a historian would be hard-pressed to produce any precedent for a summer with such low expectations.
The roster will be much the same as the one that spiraled to a 62-99 finish last year. It will have a payroll shrunken to $35.6 million, lowest in the sport, which management attributes to youth but which many fans attribute to prioritizing profits over winning. And that young roster will get even younger by mid-summer, when the next wave of prospects is due.
An optimist might say that wave makes the future bright, that 2010 could be the start of something special.
A cynic might say it will be another losing step in a neverending, chase-of-the-tail future.
Some will tune in, some will tune out.
But some also will see 2010 as a pivotal one for the Pirates, and that surely includes the following 10 people, each of whom will experience it, even influence it from wholly different perspectives.
Each was asked the same question: To you, what does the coming season mean?
Third base prospect
"To me, it means a lot of things. It's my first year after my first year, if you know what I mean. I had a little taste of professional ball, and everything isn't going to be new this time around. I see this year as an opportunity to get better, to get one step closer to the big leagues, to Pittsburgh. For the organization, it's another opportunity to get past all those losing seasons. And I think that's going to happen."
When Alvarez arrives, likely sometime in May or June, it will be the most momentous debut for the Pirates since ... Barry Bonds?
COUNTDOWN TO OPENING DAY
A look at the 2010 Pirates
The Post-Gazette's five-day preview of the Pirates' 124th season:
That is not to compare the two but, rather, to underscore how long it has been since the city has had a baseball prospect of this caliber. Andrew McCutchen, Jose Guillen and Aramis Ramirez came with some fanfare, but none was seen as having Alvarez's potential.
Even before Alvarez has played his first Class AAA game -- that is coming Thursday -- his talents have been exhaustively documented, notably the natural power stroke that could give the Pirates their first legitimate 40-home run threat since Brian Giles. But there also is a poise and maturity beyond his 23 years, at the level that one easily could see his adjustment being as breezy as McCutchen's last summer. He approaches the game with the humility of a rookie, answers questions about himself in team-first tones, and he does both of those while exuding an unmistakable air of confidence.
Check out this response from Alvarez when asked three weeks about how he envisions his Pittsburgh debut: "All I know is that, when I get that opportunity, I'm going to be very grateful. I'm going to embrace it. I'm going to enjoy it. And I'm going to work hard. If I do get that opportunity someday, it's going to be because I worked hard, because I dedicated myself. And it's going to be just an opportunity. It's not the end."
It is difficult to envision anything about the coming season that could matter more to the Pirates than that day.
"I feel as though we're all not only striving toward reaching personal goals but also coming together to prove that our team belongs. Individually, this year is important because I've been given an unbelievable opportunity to prove that I can be a quality arm in a big-league rotation. I am very appreciative of that. And this season is important for all of us because, despite the doubts that surround us, we recognize that we have the talent to turn it around."
Of all the players currently in the Pirates' clubhouse, perhaps no one is as a greater key for 2010 ...
He is the wild card to the rotation, as Ross Ohlendorf, Zach Duke and Paul Maholm are more known commodities. He has the best stuff on the staff, so his ceiling might be the highest. And, in a less tangible sense, he was the main acquisition in the robustly unpopular Nate McLouth trade, and a summer of progress could lessen pressure on Morton and management.
Morton's 5-9 record and 4.55 ERA last year do not make his potential easily evident, though that ERA goes down by nearly a full run if one offers a mulligan for that 10-run, one-inning disaster at Wrigley Field. He has been timid at times about pitching inside, but his arsenal of a no-sweat 95-mph fastball and three other pitches good enough for third strikes has scouts talking about ace potential.
That's potential. The lack of aggressiveness is a mitigating factor.
The Pirates have not had a true ace -- not Todd Ritchie, not Francisco Cordova, not even Denny Neagle, really -- since Doug Drabek.
"It's a chance for us to start a new tradition. Everybody knows about the 17 consecutive years and this and that. We have a chance to reinstall the winning atmosphere, the winning caliber of talent, the type of winning team that the city of Pittsburgh is used to, that it deserves. It's a chance to cut loose from all that baggage and start heading in the right direction. And that's a championship."
After all those trades, all those familiar faces sent away, Doumit is the only everyday player still standing.
And who can say how much longer he will stay?
He is 29 and, apart from a breakout 2008, never has stayed healthy long enough to perform to his peak. Last year, a massive disappointment in light of Doumit's three-year contract extension, he played 75 games and batted .250 with 10 home runs and 38 RBIs.
If Doumit does not improve those numbers, the Pirates will be immensely unlikely to want to pay him more -- his salary goes from $3.5 million this year to $5.1 million the next -- and could again try to trade him, as they toyed with this past winter.
He might get traded, anyway. The Pirates' top prospect below Alvarez, in some eyes, is catcher Tony Sanchez, and management sees him taking a fast track through the minors.
In the meantime, all that will be asked of Doumit is to bat cleanup, handle the pitching staff and show leadership in the clubhouse.
"The 2010 season provides our department another opportunity to impact the organization with major-league prospects from this draft class. I realize the attention given to the top of the draft, but it's important to remember that our focus is truly bigger than just our first selection. We are currently on the hunt for talent throughout the country, and we will be exhaustive in our efforts to make this draft our best yet."
Those who do not know the name Bryce Harper yet ... just wait.
He is the 17-year-old power-hitting catcher out of Las Vegas who was dubbed the "LeBron James of baseball" on the cover of Sports Illustrated last summer. And now, he is Baseball America's No. 1-rated prospect heading into the June 2010 draft, where the Pirates will have the second overall pick.
Thing is, the Washington Nationals, who have the top pick, are not indicating what they will do. And the Pirates, to this point, do not sound all that wild about him: Their scouts like Harper's power, but they have strong concerns about inconsistencies in his swing. And their general stance, as with evaluators across baseball, is that power alone makes for a poor indicator of future performance.
In another city, this might be not much of an issue. In Pittsburgh, where memories linger of ownership and/or management bypassing expensive players in the draft, it figures to loom very large.
Harper is represented by super-agent Scott Boras, who pushes every available button to get his clients every available penny. As a result, national attention will follow Harper's every majestic blast, huge dollar figures will be floated as possible signing bonuses, and there will be huge pressure on the teams who have a shot at Harper.
Should the Pirates bypass him, accusations are sure to fly about ownership being cheap. Even if management genuinely does not like the player. Even if the same front office paid a franchise-record $6.355 million for Alvarez in the same draft slot two years ago. Even if the most recent time the Pirates were accused of the cheap route, last year with Sanchez, early signs have vindicated their choice.
Whichever way the Pirates go in this draft, some of the heat will be on Smith. If he does not feel Harper is the one, he and his staff would do well to be right about the player who is.
"For me, it's about breaking camp and doing the best job we can, all of us. You play for this year. You don't play for years to come. Of course, the more time you play, the more mature you get, the better you get. But we have to perform well now."
The Pirates had the No. 1 defense in Major League Baseball in 2009, a remarkable feat in light of all the losing and the mid-season trades of Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez.
Much of that was credited to Perry Hill, a premier infield instructor who has left a powerful impression with every job he has held. But he held this job for only a year, opting not to come back in part because he was put off by the trades of Wilson and Sanchez. He still is under contract for 2010, and, even though he would welcome the chance to work elsewhere, the Pirates are not releasing him.
He once was an All-Star second baseman for the Pirates, but he will be judged in another way in replacing Hill: He will take an infield -- Andy LaRoche, Ronny Cedeno, Akinori Iwamura and Jeff Clement -- that has little experience together and, in the case of Clement, almost zero experience at first base and try to maintain ... well, No. 1.
That would not be easy under the best of circumstances.
And yet, Garcia's easygoing personality does not lend to being intimidated by a predecessor's shadow. He is firm and disciplined with players, but he is just as likely to offer a shout of encouragement through his rich Venezuelan accent, or even an embrace to someone who performs well.
Moreover, he held this position in 2005-07 with Seattle, and the Mariners led the American League in fielding percentage his first year and finished in the top five the next two.
"We're building a foundation for winning. I think, in the past, you've seen a lot of players here kind of go into survival mode, just trying to prove they can play in the majors. And that's natural. To me, those days are over. You know, people have laughed at me for talking about the playoffs, but that's why you put on the uniform. That's why you come out here and do this. Are we predicting we're making the playoffs? No. But it's time to start concentrating on how we're going to win, how we're going to get there."
The many different people pulling the Pirates' strings have widely varying focuses, some focused on the present, others on the future.
Russell's focus is simple: Beat the Los Angeles Dodgers tomorrow afternoon.
From there, he needs to continue winning, far more often than in his first two years at the helm with two last-place finishes and a 129-194 record. No manager anywhere, regardless of trades or payrolls, stays in the same dugout for long by winning at a .399 clip. And Russell has only the coming year left on his contract as a guarantee, as his 2011 club option has not been exercised.
Team president Frank Coonelly will make that call, and expect the basis for that call to be as simple as the W-L column.
Russell and his staff also will need to continue teaching at the major-league level, especially once those top prospects arrive this summer. Much of the staff's instruction showed positive results last year, notably outfield instructor Gary Varsho's work with Lastings Milledge, pitching coach Joe Kerrigan's work with the starters, and even Russell's hands-on approach as a former catcher in working with Doumit.
But there is more to managing, and Russell has much to prove.
Can he handle big-game strategy?
Hard to say until he manages in a big game.
What about providing inspiration?
Russell is anything but an extrovert, seldom raising his voice and consistently stoic in the dugout, having been ejected once through all of the team's 99 losses last season. That demeanor has not sat well with players at times, and it most assuredly has not sat well with a fan base that prefers its managers to yank first base out of the ground once in a while.
The solution for all of the above?
"From the simplest standpoint, it means more wins at the major-league level. From the bigger picture, it means that all the work, all the changes, all the effort put in down below is now beginning to show its value in the win column at the major league level."
Huntington has been on the job a little more than two-plus years, and it might be easy for some to forget the scope of his challenge:
1. Replenish a barren minor-league system.
2. Restructure a dysfunctional baseball operations department.
3. Restock the major-league roster quickly enough to satiate an impatient public.
Huntington sounds satisfied that the system and the team's methodologies have been upgraded significantly, though long-term results will reveal a clearer picture about the minors, where the system is much deeper in quantity but still lacking high-end talent.
Ultimately, though, Huntington's success or failure will be determined by how that No. 3 up there turns out.
Both aspects of it.
If Huntington were starting up an expansion franchise, he would have much more rope than what is available in Pittsburgh. More time to see how these two promising draft classes turn out. More time to see the investments in Latin America begin to pay. More time to see how his many veteran-for-prospect trades play out.
But that time might not be there.
For one, Huntington's contract expires after the coming season.
For another, the public seems more eager for results than prospect rankings.
The casual fan -- the dominant portion of any fan base -- has little use for a Jason Bay trade under any circumstance, much less one in which the return is one everyday player in Andy LaRoche, a just-released bench player in Brandon Moss, an injured reliever in Craig Hansen and a stagnant pitching prospect in Bryan Morris. Bay was Huntington's No. 1 chip in what he insisted was a "baseball trade" rather than a financial one, and the return has not come close to living up to that.
General managers get defined by signature trades, and not even Huntington's fine Xavier Nady/Damaso Marte trade undoes the Bay return.
Coonelly is known to have a deep admiration for Huntington and the job he has done to date. But another miserable summer in Pittsburgh could change the broader view. If that were not the case, an extension already might have been offered.
"From my standpoint and that of everyone in the organization, 2010 is an extremely important year. We expect to compete in 2010, and we really do expect this to be the first year of the next era of sustained excellence in Pirates baseball."
Coonelly smiled slightly as he spoke that last phrase, a clear nod to that "dynasty" comment he made early in spring training. He would love to have that one back, for all the grief it brought, but he stands firmly behind the concept: The Pirates' plan is to build up enough young talent that they can sustain a cycle of competitive baseball for years to come.
Those who know Coonelly do not doubt it. His sunrise-to-midnight work ethic is without peer at 115 Federal Street, he is intensely involved in all aspects of the baseball and business operations, and he is competitive to the point of being combative. This is someone who can be seen squirming in his seat when the Pirates trail in Grapefruit League games.
One easily could draw the conclusion that he might be as eager as anyone to see results, which could impact the calls he makes on Russell and Huntington.
For now, Coonelly wants no part of discussing the futures of those two. When asked last month if he has significant decisions to make this year, he replied flatly, "We do. But I think we're going to have significant decisions to make every year."
Russell and Huntington will be top priority.
"I'm excited for the 2010 season, as it will bring us one step closer to our overall goal of building an organization that can compete for the division title and a championship on a consistent basis. We have worked extremely hard to build a strong foundation, and 2010 is a year in which we should begin to see the fruits of that labor, not only at the major league level, but also with the continued maturation of the impact talent we've added at every level of our system."
Nutting draws more criticism than everyone else associated with the team combined, mostly because of the perennially low payroll. And this year, with the $35.6 million payroll about $17 million lower than on the day PNC Park opened in 2001, even as baseball's revenue sharing has multiplied since then, the accusations that ownership is unwilling to spend -- rather than unable -- can be expected to mount.
And it could become something more.
The MLB Players Association has not signaled any intent to investigate the Pirates' spending of revenue-sharing monies, as it did last year with Florida, and none is expected. But the Marlins were targeted by the union in large part because they annually had the lowest payroll, a place now taken by the Pirates. Any such scenario involving the Pirates, obviously, would be an epic embarrassment.
Adding to the pressure on Nutting was the word in January that the Penguins' co-owners, Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle, made an offer to buy the Pirates. The public reaction, despite Nutting's firm reiteration that the Pirates are not for sale, was overwhelmingly -- and predictably -- in favor of selling. There have been no new developments on that front, and none appears imminent despite the Penguins' continuing interest. Still, the issue is not likely to die, especially if the Pirates fail again in 2010.
Then again, Nutting could have his turnabout.
As with Coonelly, those who know Nutting describe him as competitive. They say he genuinely wants the Pirates to succeed -- in the standings and as a business -- and they cite his willingness to take the heat that comes with a low payroll as proof of his commitment to building the franchise through youth rather than going for quick fixes.
Nutting and Coonelly had authorized Huntington to spend more in 2010 -- Coonelly has described it as "a lot more" -- but all concerned say Huntington elected to have payroll where it is based on what he felt was best from the baseball standpoint. Huntington told the PirateFest crowd in January: "Bob is taking criticism because of the decisions Frank and I have made."
Should the Pirates show meaningful progress this summer, Nutting's stance could begin to vindicate him in some eyes.
Even then, it still will remain to be seen if Nutting and the Pirates ever spend up to the level of their division and market peers, the Milwaukee Brewers and Cincinnati Reds. Both those teams' payrolls will be more than double that of the Pirates in 2010.
"This season will mean completely nothing to me. I'm done. They've killed something in me, and I'm done."
When climbing through the Pirates' hierarchy, from prospects to the owner, the highest authority still is the fan. Especially when dealing with a franchise that has known so much failure for so long now, no one has a greater stake -- or greater sway -- than the fan.
And few have made a greater investment than Mrs. Sherman: She is a vibrant, lucid 80 years old, and she was a season-ticket holder from Forbes Field to Three Rivers Stadium to PNC Park, where she held a full-season plan for every game since the latter opened.
This winter, she decided enough was enough: She canceled her season tickets, and she does not expect to attend any games this year.
Thus, for her, 2010 will matter because of how little it will mean.
"Two weeks after they signed Nate McLouth to that contract last year, they invited season-ticket holders to a reception at PNC, and Nate was there," Mrs. Sherman recalled. "He was signing his All-Star jerseys, and they were telling us he was one of the cornerstones of the franchise. That's the word they used: Cornerstone. I told Nate, 'Gee, I hope they don't trade you, too.' He said, 'Oh, they'll never do that.' "
Four months later, McLouth was traded for three prospects.
"Later in the summer, I had to go to Florida for a little while to take care of business, and I came back and they completely dismantled the team. I decided I couldn't watch that anymore. How can the Pirates ever be a true team if they'll never allow them to stay together?"
Others feel differently, of course: Many fans, including some who follow baseball the closest, applaud the Pirates' current plan, praising it as the first sensible one during these two decades of losing. Season-ticket sales, the truest measure of support, are up slightly from a year ago.
But how many of those fans will be there primarily for PNC Park's ambiance or the fireworks or the postgame concerts?
How many will be from that younger generation seen all over town in their No. 87 Penguins sweaters, a group that has grown up with its local baseball team a laughingstock?
And how many more, like Mrs. Sherman, will look beyond faded memories and, finally, give up hope?
All of that probably can be addressed with one question: How much longer will Pittsburghers, especially those who care deeply about one of the city's most venerable institutions, be waiting until next year?