Hot Stove: A downgrade for Pirates' defense?
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If the optimistic view about the 2010 Pirates is that there is nowhere to go but up, then this also should be noted: There is nowhere for their defense to go but down.
Unless it finishes No. 1 again.
That was the Pirates' ranking among all of Major League Baseball last season, despite 99 losses, despite midseason trades of some of their best gloves. The .988 fielding percentage was the best, and the total of 73 errors the lowest.
But this roster and the one that opened last season have little in common, so a fresh look is warranted ...
Start with those staying put: Ryan Doumit is behind the plate, Andy LaRoche at third base.
At first, Jeff Clement will be learning the position in spring training, so he hardly can be expected to match Adam LaRoche.
At second, Akinori Iwamura has comparable career statistics to Freddy Sanchez and should make a wash.
At shortstop, Ronny Cedeno was inconsistent and visibly frustrated the staff, but he will get another chance. Jack Wilson, his predecessor, won the statistically-driven Fielding Bible Award as the top defender at his position, in part through a formula that determines runs saved. He actually ranked first in that category over the past three years.
In left field, Lastings Milledge, who made strides down the stretch, replaced Nyjer Morgan, who finished the year ranked second among all players at his position.
In center, Andrew McCutchen is a marked improvement over Nate McLouth. The numbers on McLouth, despite his 2008 Gold Glove, are harsh because of limited range.
In right, Garrett Jones will not be as effective as Brandon Moss, though that call obviously was made for the offense.
All told ...
"There's no reason we shouldn't be able to continue it," manager John Russell said.
"We've got pretty much the same personnel, with the exception of Nyjer, Jack and Freddy, and we didn't really feel like we lost a lot, especially with Iwamura coming."
What about shortstop?
"I think we're going to be solid up the middle, and that includes Ronny or Bobby Crosby if he's there. Cedeno showed us he can play."
Doumit sounded a similar note about the middle infield.
"I don't see why we can't be good again defensively," he said. "From what I've seen of Cedeno ... with all due respect to Jack -- and he was one of the best shortstops in the game -- for a while there, Cedeno made Pittsburghers forget about Jack.
"And Iwamura's reputation precedes him. I remember Eric Hinske raving to us about him last year."
Hinske and Iwamura were teammates with Tampa Bay.
• Another key departure from that defense, infield instructor Perry Hill, remains idle. The Pirates exercised his club option for 2010 even after Hill said he did not wish to return, and other teams cannot contact him without the Pirates' permission.
• General manager Neal Huntington made a striking pronouncement on the 2010 draft yesterday by telling the PirateFest crowd that Bryce Harper, the Las Vegas catcher dubbed "Baseball's LeBron" by Sports Illustrated last June, is not currently among the Pirates' top 10. They pick second. "He's getting a lot of hype," Huntington said. "We will scout Bryce Harper. But we're not going to select him because somebody thinks he's the best prospect in the history of the game and we think he's the 10th-best."
• It has been 12 years since the franchise's last in-season trade acquisition aimed at contending, that being Shawon Dunston in 1997. Huntington would not rule out spending his untapped payroll that way this summer should something equally surprising occur: "Oh, absolutely. We're working toward the day when we can trade prospects for veterans, where those kinds of deals can put us where we want to be."
• Steve Pearce's name rarely is mentioned by management after batting .206 in 60 games last season, even though he still is, theoretically, in the mix for outfield or first base. How does he see it? "I haven't really had a shot to show what I can do playing every day, so I've been working really hard this offseason to try to put myself in good position. There's a lot of competition, I know. But I'm going to embrace it."
• The Pirates' minor league system is a the middle of the pack, ranked 16th of 30 teams, according to Baseball America, the most recognized brand in this area. That is up two notches from last year and the ranking is the highest since being 11th in 2004. "We thought we'd be higher," Huntington said. "But McCutchen coming to the majors takes a big guy off our list." Also this week, ESPN's Keith Law ranked the Pirates 18th.
• Seventeen days until pitchers and catchers report.
First Published January 31, 2010 12:00 am