On the Pirates: Will the losing ever end?
HOUSTON -- Will it ever end?
Here are 17 reasons to believe the Pirates' 17-year losing streak will end as early as 2010, as well as 17 reasons to believe it will extend into eternity ...
• Management has a plan. Player evaluation remains in question, but it would be next to impossible to question the resolve of president Frank Coonelly and general manager Neal Huntington to build from within, given the massive heat they have taken this summer.
• If the streak reaches the point where it looks like three or four years under this management, which took over in late 2007, surely more urgency will be placed on the here and now. Those will not be Dave Littlefield's players out there failing anymore. Pieces will be added, not subtracted.
• Huntington is intensely focused, organized, detail-oriented, open to fresh ideas, ambitious to the point of envisioning India embracing baseball someday, and very much moved by the Pirates' wins and losses emotionally but without allowing it cross into his work.
• Andrew McCutchen is really good.
• Pedro Alvarez is legitimate, too. He is not Midre Cummings, Chad Hermansen, J.J. Davis or any other touted prospect who crumbled upon reaching Pittsburgh. He has extraordinary power, all kinds of other hitting tools and, by all accounts, good makeup. Teams with this type of talent tend not to lose for long.
• Jose Tabata, the top outfield prospect, does not have Alvarez's power, but his hitting is otherwise little different.
• Teams with good starting pitching can hide a lackluster lineup. Ask the San Francisco Giants. With Ross Ohlendorf stepping up as a potential horse, then Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, the Pirates have several options to fill it out: Charlie Morton, Kevin Hart, Daniel McCutchen and Brad Lincoln.
• The fans will keep coming. Anger among the fan base can be healthy for a franchise. It is apathy that is the killer, and that has not yet fully taken form.
• Those who come will enjoy watching Brad Lincoln pitch someday. He is all Texas, but his no-nonsense, no-fear approach will appeal to Pittsburgh.
• Garrett Jones. It is one thing to get hot for a month. It is quite another to stay that way for nearly half a season while opponents are making adjustments, pitching around the strike zone, and the ball still is being sprayed all over the field with authority. He looks to be everything that Adam LaRoche was supposed to be.
• Executives around baseball have praised the Pirates' past two drafts, with the notable exception of some feeling they over-reached by taking Boston College catcher Tony Sanchez with their No. 1 pick in June. And all Sanchez did was bat .316 with seven home runs for Class A West Virginia.
• The level of instruction taking place, from the lowest levels of the minors to Pittsburgh, is uniformly structured and enforced. If John Russell has a certain way he prefers the hit-and-run, that is how it is taught to a 16-year-old in the Venezuelan academy. The franchise never has seen its kind.
• Ohlendorf, Tabata, Jeff Karstens and Daniel McCutchen for Xavier Nady and Damaso Marte? Think the Yankees would take that one back?
• The acquisition of Lastings Milledge, while unpopular because it sent Nyjer Morgan to Washington, was exactly the kind of high-risk, high-reward trade the Pirates had not made since ... maybe the one in which Tony Pena was dealt for Andy Van Slyke, Mike LaValliere and Mike Dunne. Milledge is batting .355 in his past 23 games.
• Starling Marte. The emergence of this dynamic Dominican outfielder with Class A West Virginia is a desperately needed sign that Latin American scouting director Rene Gayo's work is paying off. Not since Aramis Ramirez have the Pirates produced a real talent from that region.
• Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and John Grabow all can be free agents this winter. That is one sure way to win a trade, right?
• It has to end sometime.
• Until Bob Nutting illustrates a willingness to spend -- the only real example to date is Alvarez's $6.355 million bonus -- there is no firm cause for the public to feel that ownership is more committed to winning than profiting.
• If the best the Pirates can do to add to a roster that projects to cost $23 million next season is acquire free agents to bolster depth -- and that is what they are suggesting -- one look at Ramon Vazquez's two-year, $4 million contract and .243 batting average should douse any enthusiasm. There also was Eric Hinske signing for $1.5 million, pouting, demanding a trade, then being productive elsewhere and trashing the Pirates while they pick up $400,000 of his salary ... to play for the ultra-rich Yankees.
• Management's plan to raise payroll -- at some unknown point by some unknown amount -- is contingent on attendance increasing first. That is a cart-before-the-horse that would fail miserably for most businesses in America: Buy our product so we can make it better.
• A glance at the standings shows that the six of the eight teams currently in playoff position rank among the top nine payrolls in Major League Baseball. All six teams are above $100 million, with the only outliers -- the St. Louis Cardinals and Colorado Rockies -- above $75 million. Even if the Pirates did spend all they could, they could only approach nine figures with massive losses, thanks to baseball being the only professional sport without a salary cap.
• Left-handed relief, anyone?
• Since the last week of July, when many of those trades were made, the Pirates are 11-33, not exactly a tidal wave of momentum.
• Draw up your own diamond, and pencil in every current player you could see participating on a championship team someday, as compared to the lineup the actual champion Philadelphia Phillies had last year. That is how far away the Pirates are.
• Productive as the Nady/Marte trade has been, the Jason Bay trade is shaping up to be a bust: Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss have had extensive chances and not established themselves as mainstays, Craig Hansen might have a career-ending injury and pitching prospect Bryan Morris, the Pirates' stated key piece of the deal, has been awful in Class A.
• The Cardinals, Cubs and Brewers all will continue to exist.
• If Nate McLouth can be traded, so can anyone. The residual damage done by that trade -- never mind the negligible return at this very early point -- is that it sends a message to the current players and the public that even a young player identified as a building block could be gone the next day. That hurts from the baseball and business standpoint.
• Despite the Pirates' hearty push for Dominican prospect Miguel Angel Sano, they still have yet to make a real splash internationally, just pieces here and there.
• The lineup points to Ryan Doumit being a big bat, if not the big bat. But he has to stay healthy -- his fault or not -- for that to matter.
• The system sorely lacks pitching prospects at the upper levels, aside from Lincoln and Tim Alderson, the right-hander from the Freddy Sanchez trade. And those at the lower levels will take years to arrive.
• Strikeouts are needed badly. Other than Ohlendorf, no one in rotation is the strikeout type, and few are getting them in the bullpen, too, despite all those power arms: The staff's rate of 5.79 per game is second-lowest in the majors.
• A pitch-to-contact staff needs a very good defensive infield. The Pirates had that but traded three-quarters of it away. Ronny Cedeno and Delwyn Young still have much to prove.
• Because of that infield being mostly gone, so, too, is infield instructor Perry Hill expected not to return. He is one of the best in the business, as his results this year showed it. Having elite instruction is one of the few areas in which the Pirates can compete with the big boys, so this loss would hurt.
• Never bet against streaks.
First Published September 13, 2009 12:00 am