Baseball 2010: Three reasons to believe ... or not

Analysis: Pirates' pitching might be OK, but can they hit or defend?


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BRADENTON, Fla. -- Jeff Banister is entering his 25th year with the Pirates, his eighth as minor league field coordinator. And to hear him speak through that booming Texas twang is to know that, as director of development Kyle Stark recently put it, "Banny just burns for this franchise and everything about it."

That includes its history.

Early this spring, Banister assigned the following designations to the three groups in the 150-player minor league camp: 1960, 1971 and 1979. And the players are taught to know that those years represent World Series championships for the team they represent.

Banister takes it beyond nostalgia, too.

"I tell all our players, 'It's not about the 17. It's about the 31,' " he said a few days ago at Pirate City.

The 17, of course, refers to the ongoing record streak of losing seasons. And the 31 represents the number of years since the last of those championships.

"For these players, it's not about breaking the losing streak. It's not about us taking shortcuts or doing things at any level just to get to .500. We're not looking for good players. We want great ones. We want another World Series. But we also know that's not going to happen overnight."



COUNTDOWN
TO OPENING DAY

A look at the 2010 Pirates

The Post-Gazette's five-day preview of the Pirates' 124th season:

Thursday: Three reasons why the Pirates could be winners ... and why they almost surely will not be.

Friday: Long-troubled Lastings Milledge has been influenced by younger teammate Andrew McCutchen, and vice versa.

Saturday: Columnists Gene Collier and Ron Cook weigh in with their opinions.
Ron Cook | Gene Collier

Sunday: Think 2010 might not matter for the Pirates? From the rookies to the owner to the real boss, it will matter to these 10 people.

Monday: Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata and Brad Lincoln, the top prospects, should arrive this summer with a flourish.


No, and it most assuredly will not happen this year.

While Banister is hardly the only member of management who speaks of a wave of prospects washing over Pittsburgh someday soon, any reasonable forecast for the parent club's immediate future should be infinitely more reserved.

Some better younger talent?

Yes.

A better record for 2010?

It takes some doing not to improve on 62-99.

But winners?

Here are three reasons why the Pirates could -- and that's could in the most literal sense -- become winners again, as well as three reasons why they will not ...

Why they could win

3. The pitching

"The potential is there," Zach Duke said of the Pirates' young rotation that also includes Ross Ohlendorf, Paul Maholm, Charlie Morton and Daniel McCutchen. "It's just a matter of whether or not we can get it together and give our team a chance to win every day. You look at our No. 4 guy in Charlie, and he's probably got the best stuff of any of us. And he's No. 4. That speaks a lot to the whole group, I think."

That might well be.

Duke and Maholm have been consistent and durable performers, Ohlendorf had a strong second half last season, and Morton is universally viewed as having the highest ceiling. Moreover, there finally is some semblance of depth beyond the John Van Benschoten/Yoslan Herrera callups seen in recent years, with McCutchen, Kevin Hart and prospects Brad Lincoln and Donnie Veal.

But there are pitfalls: Duke and Maholm each has topped 30 starts the past two seasons, and those who achieve that level three years in a row are rare. Ohlendorf's opponents batted a remarkably low .265 against him on balls in play last season, a statistical quirk that illustrates he was plenty lucky and is due a comeuppance. Morton's talent will not do him much good until he shows a consistent willingness to pitch aggressively.

And a collective note of caution: This same group had a subpar 4.59 ERA last season, with opponents batting a league-high .284.

Bullpens always are hard to predict, which is why general manager Neal Huntington goes year-to-year in building them. But this one has the makings of being the Pirates' greatest strength, with three veteran additions -- closer Octavio Dotel, setup man Brendan Donnelly and long man D.J. Carrasco -- all coming off strong seasons in the American League. Evan Meek and Joel Hanrahan could find new levels, too.

2. The upside

Perhaps the greatest separator between this edition of the Pirates and those of the recent past is that there is the genuine potential for a growing number of players to perform above and beyond.

Morton, Meek and Hanrahan qualify among pitchers, but there are everyday players, too: Andrew McCutchen might not top his .286 rookie average by much, but he can upgrade on 12 home runs and 22 steals. Lastings Milledge, not far removed from being a golden prospect with the New York Mets, looks and sounds like a new man after a serious winter of workouts, and his power could return with a healthy hand. It would be asking a ton for Garrett Jones to replicate his pace of 21 home runs in a half-season, but his emergence into a consistent, reliable power threat would be a stride forward.

Andy LaRoche, Ronny Cedeno and Jeff Clement all could be seen as having upside, too.

"I think there a lot of guys in here who can get better," LaRoche said.

And that is to say nothing of Pedro Alvarez, the franchise's top prospect. He is due to arrive by midsummer and, when he does, his ceiling will be as high as it has been for anyone in the Pirates' system since the arrival of Barry Bonds.

Jose Tabata, the top outfield prospect, also could make it this year, as could Lincoln.

Thing is, the Pirates still could use an awful lot more in that class. Alvarez and Tabata were acquired by Huntington, but McCutchen and Lincoln were drafted by Dave Littlefield, his predecessor. And the level of premium talent in the minors -- despite all those trades and all those dollars allocated toward acquiring amateurs -- remains low.

1. The chemistry

No, this does not matter much at all if isolated. Several of the Pirates' rosters in recent years have had exceptional human beings, best friends, all kinds of bonding and high-fiving, only to remain losing teams.

In this specific setting, though, where management continues to make the future the priority over the present, where there is unprecedented outside cynicism surrounding the franchise, a collective approach could make for a vital component.

There have been strong signs of some of that togetherness forming this spring, even beyond the standard seasonal optimism.

"You go back to last year, and all the trades that happened and everything else, and this group never had a chance to start fresh," catcher Ryan Doumit said. "Well, this one does, and we're looking forward to it. I like what I see. I really do."

Doumit might be expected to become one of those taking charge -- something he did not do last season -- but he likely will be overshadowed by some of the many veterans Huntington added in the offseason, notably Dotel, Donnelly and outfielder Ryan Church.

Donnelly, the one with the roughest edge, might stand out.

"There's talent here, and I saw in Florida that young talent can win," he said. "But you've got to do the right things to bring that talent together. And you've got to believe."

Why they will lose again

3. The defense

Jack Zduriencik, the New Castle man in his second season as Seattle's general manager, is building the Mariners with Gold Glove-caliber players across the diamond, including shortstop Jack Wilson. It is part of a pitching-and-defense plan backed by a wealth of new-science numbers that lend hard evidence to how a player can save his team runs in the field, just as he can create them at the plate. And nobody did the former better in the American League last year than the Mariners, while also making a dramatic overall improvement.

Similarly, when Tampa Bay soared from last place to the World Series in 2008, the Rays also went from worst to first in defensive efficiency.

The Pirates, it would appear, are heading the opposite direction.

They were No. 1 in Major League Baseball last year with the fewest errors and the best fielding percentage -- powerful proof, by the way, that defense alone does not cut it -- and that was achieved mostly through an infield that no longer is there: Only Andy LaRoche remains, with Wilson, Sanchez and Adam LaRoche having been traded late in the summer.

Comparing that infield defensively to the current one makes for quite the mismatch.

In the middle: Wilson was rated by the Fielding Bible as the majors' best shortstop last year, and Ronny Cedeno is seen, even internally, as erratic. Sanchez and Aki Iwamura have similarly strong pedigrees at second base, but Iwamura still is wearing a knee brace and is visibly thicker, both of which appeared to hurt his range this spring. Together, Wilson and Sanchez might have been baseball's best double-play duo, while Cedeno and Iwamura just met in mid-February.

That raises the issue of chemistry and communication, the latter being no small feat given English being a second language for Iwamura of Japan and Cedeno of Venezuela.

"It will take me and Ronny time, but we talk every day," Iwamura said. "We all speak the language of baseball. I think the chemistry will be good."

The gap is most glaring at first base: Adam LaRoche ranked second in the majors in fielding percentage in 2009 and, in another of those new-science numbers, was second only to Colorado's Todd Helton in scooping throws out of the dirt, according to STATS Inc. Clement has played less than a month's worth of real games at first base, all in the minors, and showed scant signs this spring that he can handle the position at an average level.

2. The hitting

Where to start?

Half of the Pirates' eight everyday players never played a full season in the majors.

The cumulative 2009 average of those eight players in the majors -- Clement was in the minors all year -- was .265, with a total of 70 home runs. Clement batted .274 in Class AAA.

The most home runs any of those eight players has hit in any single season is Jones' 21. No one else out of the current Pirates had more than 12 last season.

The RBI leader was LaRoche with 64, with no one else having as many as 55.

Iwamura and McCutchen offer promise for the top of the order, but the throbbing uncertainty is the heart: Jones is anything but a known commodity despite his four superb months. Doumit is the cleanup man despite a history of health issues and few home runs. And there is no clear candidate for a solid No. 5, including Milledge, who might profile better at No. 2 or lower in the order.

The top of the order, of course, was the focus of manager John Russell's eyebrow-raising decision to bat the pitcher eighth.

"I think Cutch is more of a 2, 3 kind of hitter, anyway," Jones said. "He has good at-bats, and he drives the ball. I think this will be a better fit for him. With Aki leading off and Cutch following him up, that's a good 1-2 punch."

Still, teams that do not hit for power look for chain-reaction offense, and there was little of that this spring from the Pirates' regulars, even at windswept McKechnie Field, where some of the gaudiest numbers of the Grapefruit League usually can be found. More relevant, these eight players have little history of walks or high on-base percentages, the essential component for the chain-reaction offense.

As a result of all that, expect Russell to keep his bench more involved than last year, especially Church and Delwyn Young, the latter having been the Pirates' best hitter this spring.

1. The math

The traditional No. 1 reason the Pirates will lose, for several years now in this annual feature, has been the seven letters stitched across the front of the jersey. But that could be interpreted to mean the franchise has been stricken by bad luck, and nothing would be more misleading.

Instead, just look at the cold math facing this 2010 team ...

• The number of times the Pirates, over their 123 years, have made an improvement of 20 or more wins -- and remember, that is what it would take to be a winner -- is five. It has not happened since 1989-90, and it has not happened for a team starting with as few as 62 wins since 1947-48.

• Never mind 82 wins. The Pirates have not topped 68 since 2004, nor 75 in a decade.

• The real gauge for core this group is not the 62-99 finish last year, but the 19-46 record produced after the July trades last summer. It was one of the most abysmal extended stretches of baseball in Pittsburgh in the past century.

• The improvements made in the interim still added up to the lowest payroll in the majors at a projected $35.6 million. Teams that win with low payrolls are common. Teams that make epic turnarounds are not.

• The first seven weeks of the 2010 schedule bring a who's-who of opponents that have owned the Pirates in recent years: There are seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers, eight against the Milwaukee Brewers, six against the Chicago Cubs, three against the St. Louis Cardinals. Also in there are two against the National League champion Philadelphia Phillies. That's 26 of the first 39 games.

Not surprisingly, given all that, most publications pick the Pirates to finish last again, although a few suggest they might squeak by the Houston Astros.

Perhaps the most powerful -- and painful -- outlook came from the statistics-based Web site FanGraphs.com, which performed thousands of computer projections to break down the 2010 Pirates this way against the majors' 30 teams: The offense ranked 29th, the pitching 29th, the defense 18th. And the team's record: 68-94, worst in the majors.

Management's actions alone speak to the notion that the future remains the priority, and not just because of the payroll or Alvarez starting the year in the minors: Deploying Clement at first base, despite questions about all facets of his game, despite Huntington's oft-stated declaration that players will not be given roster spots "by scholarship," despite this being the start of the season rather than the standard experimental time, stands out the most.

For now, even allowing for some summer fun with the talented likes of Alvarez and McCutchen, the Pirates' future still looks mighty far away.


How others see it

Preseason predictions for the 2010 Pirates from some national publications.

MediaRecordFinishSports Illustrated65-97LastESPN the Magazine74-88FifthThe Sporting News70-92LastFox News66-96LastBaseball Prospectus72-90LastFanGraphs.com68-94LastBeckett Monthly69-93FifthWashington Post62-99Last

Dejan Kovacevic: dkovacevic@post-gazette.com . Find more at PBC Blog .


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