Rise of three rookies dimmed amid historic failure, evaluation errors
October 3, 2010 4:00 AM
Keith Srakocic/Associated Press
Rookie third baseman Pedro Alvarez's late-season surge has provided a rare ray of light in the Pirates' 57-104 season.
By Dejan Kovacevic Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
MIAMI -- The 124th season of the Pittsburgh Baseball Club finally, mercifully will reach its 27th out this afternoon.
Here are 18 highs and lows of a long-lost summer gone by ...
9. Lastings' last out
Sure, Lastings Milledge took a famously circuitous route, but he still dived to the track and robbed Freddy Sanchez of the tying RBI to end a 6-3 victory against the Giants, June 5 before a sellout crowd at PNC Park.
In a season bereft of fun, it provided a rare smile, including the bright one flashed by Milledge when he pulled the ball from his mitt to show it to the umpires. The crowd roared at the sight.
"I knew I could catch it," Milledge said, still smiling later.
8. Happy at home
If the Pirates are going to perform competently in just one stadium, at least they picked the right one.
They went 40-41 at PNC Park, a violent contrast to the 17-63 everywhere else. That alone was not an aberration, as the Pirates have been mostly at OK at home since PNC opened. What might have meant more this time was that the team's younger players developed -- and discussed -- an our-house mentality that will be an essential part of maturing quickly
7. McDonald's debut
The 17,131 inside PNC Park on Aug. 5 probably had to rub their eyes several times when James McDonald made his debut after being acquired from the Dodgers for Octavio Dotel in a welcome trading victory for general manager Neal Huntington.
A pitcher striking people out?
The first four batters?
Seven Ks through three innings?
Not since Oliver Perez had they seen one of their own getting swings and misses like that and, though McDonald would later stress efficiency, the sheer novelty of his showing that night was jarring, especially in the context of some of the worst starting pitching in franchise history.
6. The support
A sports market is whatever a team makes of it, as Pittsburgh's other two teams demonstrate by selling out every game.
What the city demonstrated to the Pirates in 2010 is that it does not take much to draw them out: Average attendance increased by about 600 to 19,919, there were seven sellouts and, on April 7, a crowd of 31,061 showed up for the season's second game.
Sure, it was buck night, and many seats sold for $1, but that long ago stopped being a significant lure. The far likelier reason was that the Pirates had created the tiniest sliver of hope by winning their opener two days earlier, 11-5, against the Dodgers on two home runs by Garrett Jones.
5. Tabata's tears
Neil Walker already had been in the major-league fold, but it was not until Jose Tabata's promotion, June 9 in Washington, that the wave of rookies began to feel official.
The previous night, Class AAA Indianapolis manager Frank Kremblas handed Tabata an envelope without explanation. Inside was a plane ticket to D.C.
Tabata cried upon opening it, then again when retelling the story the next day.
"My first thought was about my mom. She talked to me every day, kept telling me, 'Come on, baby, you can do it.' "
Brad Lincoln came with him and, a week later, Pedro Alvarez was up, too.
Sink or swim, it was clear this would be the Pirates' group and, with the exception of Lincoln, they more than met most expectations: Walker has batted .298 with 12 home runs and 66 RBIs, Tabata .302 with 19 steals and great consistency, and Alvarez's late burst has him at .256 with 16 home runs and 64 RBIs.
4. Meek and Hanrahan
Evan Meek became an All-Star, and Joel Hanrahan moved into an elite relievers' bracket with his 100th strikeout Saturday night, forming the anchors to a bullpen that was the Pirates' only above-average facet. By season's end, actually, those two were pretty much the only ones manager John Russell would trust when leading or even close.
They will compete for the closer's job next year, and it would appear the Pirates cannot lose either way.
3. Hometown hero
The Pirates might have lost a generation of fans amid two decades of losing, but one member of that generation, Walker, lived his childhood dream June 1 by booming his first home run in the majors on Pittsburgh soil. And he did so with a two-run shot in the eighth inning that beat the Cubs, 3-2.
Afterward, Walker was emotional: "I was 6 years old the last time the Pirates had a winning season, you know? But I'm from here, and I know the energy that our people have for the Steelers and Penguins, and I think the fan base for our team is just dying to give us that same kind of support. We are, too. It doesn't happen overnight. But there's talent here, and we're working toward that. And if I can be a part of that, of the Pirates winning again, that would be one of the most incredible things in my life."
2. Trifecta of arms
None of the Pirates' positives from 2010 likely will mean more than the mid-August week in which they signed their top two draft picks, Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, as well as Mexican free agent Luis Heredia, for more than $11 million. All three are elite, teenaged right-handed pitchers, with some in the organization feeling they were the three best amateur arms available anywhere this year.
It will be a long while before they arrive, but these types of acquisitions represent by far the likeliest route for low-spending teams like the Pirates to add star-level pitching, the kind not been seen in these parts since Doug Drabek.
1. Alvarez's blast
If the Pirates and their followers might cull one memory from a season such as this, it would come in the form of one mighty swing.
"Finally, I think the baseball gods have looked down on us, and said, 'Enough's enough,' " Russell said.
Several longtime observers posited that it might have been the most powerful moment in PNC Park's decade of existence. That included broadcaster Steve Blass, who went as wild in the booth as the fans did in the stands.
"Running around the bases ... I don't think it could have been any louder," Alvarez said. "The place would have collapsed if it were."
9. No minor matter
The Pirates' minor-league system saw pitching successes with Class AA Altoona, the Eastern League champion, and Class A Bradenton, notably the maturation of Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson into highly promising prospects.
But, with the promotions of the three big rookies, the system under Huntington appears little better off for top-level position-player prospects than at the end of Dave Littlefield's tenure. That could change if outfielder Starling Marte and catcher Tony Sanchez rebound from injuries, but much more is needed.
8. Public perception
The front office dealt with a litany of public messes, from president Frank Coonelly's decision to keep secret for eight months his extensions for Huntington and Russell, to the revealing of the team's $20.4 million profit for 2007-09, to the racing pierogi getting fired to the curiously hush-hush callups of the three big rookies.
Not all of the criticisms were fair or accurate, but perception is perception. And the Pirates have a long way to go to improve theirs.
7. Lack of retaliation
The Pirates absorbed many losses far worse than the Dodgers beating them, 5-1, May 1 in Los Angeles. But it surely has been a long time since they looked more feeble.
The Dodgers' Ramon Ortiz threw high and tight to Andrew McCutchen not once but twice, and Zach Duke blew a golden chance to follow baseball's code when Ortiz the very next inning: He threw four pitches, all outside, for the most hollow of strikeouts.
Russell, the coaches and teammates were furious in the clubhouse, and Duke conceded afterward he had "dropped the ball." But he surely was not alone in that regard.
6. Meddling from above
Forcing Charlie Morton onto the mound with a four-digit ERA in May, keeping Aki Iwamura atop the order with a .169 average, declaring Jeff Clement the everyday first baseman, implementing bizarre defensive shifts ... all these originated with Huntington's baseball operations staff and were accepted by Russell.
That seemed to change as the season went along, as a bolder Russell made more calls, and even the shifts faded away. So, perhaps the twofold lesson was learned that the people on the field should call the shots on the field, and that the front office should focus on finding better talent.
6. 82, 100 ...
The litany of negative numbers never stopped, and they went even beyond the standard 82nd loss that clinched an 18th consecutive losing season, or the 100th loss that was the eighth in franchise history.
There also was a 12-game losing streak June 6-18.
There were two road losing streaks of at least 14 games, the longest lasting 17.
There is the team batting average of .243, the starters' ERA of 5.31, the lack of a 10-game winner, and the plunge in fielding percentage rank from first to worst in the majors.
The one that might best define 2010 is the run differential of minus-276, among the worst in baseball's modern era that began in 1900.
5. The road record
The 17-63 record outside PNC Park merits special mention, as it was among the worst in the sport's history. Just for fun, take away the 5-4 record at Wrigley Field against the underachieving Cubs, and the Pirates are 12-59 everywhere else.
Neither Russell nor his players had answers for this. Huntington had said his staff studied variables from food to lifestyle habits to travel, but they, too, came up empty.
More first-hand attention could help.
4. No starting pitching
Duke and Paul Maholm had 5-plus ERAs, with some of the worst hit ratios in the majors. Morton was a disaster until some encouraging signs toward the end. Ross Ohlendorf, though he pitched far better than his record, still won a solitary game. Jeff Karstens, at times the staff's best, won three.
Not one of the 11 men to start a game for the Pirates has a winning record, and nearly half of all starts saw the pitcher fail to last as long as six innings.
3. Evaluation lacking
The Pirates did not realize that Walker could be an everyday second baseman until he took the position because of another being hurt in late May, a glaring error in light of the importance of any baseball team to properly identify middle-of-the-field talent.
When they acquired Dana Eveland, Huntington called him a "potential upgrade for our current rotation." But Russell and the coaches watched Eveland for just one start, and that would be it. Iwamura was deemed healthy, agile and enthusiastic when acquired last December, at least until he showed up at spring training immobile, overweight and under-motivated. For three years in a row, management has acquired backup shortstops instantly exposed as being unable to field the position.
The list goes on, and that is not even touching upon Jose Bautista, Matt Capps and the like.
The Pirates under Huntington have made strides in prioritizing and executing the draft, the signing of international talent and the development of both. But there have been far more misses than hits on simple evaluation.
It never was the case that building a foundation had to come at the cost of so much failure at the major-league level.
For all of the above, the Pirates' only non-verbal response has been to fire two assistant coaches.
Many in the organization, all the way up to owner Bob Nutting, have preached accountability. In a January interview with the Post-Gazette, Nutting predicted, "We are going to see improvement on the field in Pittsburgh, in terms of wins and losses. We have to." When asked about accountability beyond changing the roster, he replied, "Ultimately, my job is very simple: It's to set the level of expectation to win games in Pittsburgh, period. And my tool to do that is to hold people accountable to reach this goal."
It remains to be seen what, if any, action is taken. But Nutting, too, is responsible as the man at the top, as well as the one who authorized the major-league payroll decreasing to $48 million. The draft and international budgets increased, but at a smaller rate than the major-league payroll went down.
Few of the 13,634 at PNC on that April 22 afternoon will forget the boom after boom after boom of the Milwaukee bats en route to the most lopsided loss in Pittsburgh baseball history. It was so bad that the Brewers' manager, Ken Macha, later confided that he was sending pitchers to the plate just to keep it from worsening. And they were getting hits.
Never had the franchise been more humiliated, and doubly so for happening on the home field.
"We should all be embarrassed to have Major League Baseball uniforms on our back today," reliever Brendan Donnelly said.
Might it have been the bottom?
With the Pirates, that never makes for a wise prediction.