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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Offseason Prospectus #12: The Pitiful Pittsburgh Pirates & The Curse of Barry Bonds

It's official. As of the end of the 2009 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates, one of the most storied franchises in the National League, have set a new record for ineptitude, having now failed to achieve even a .500 record for 17 consecutive seasons. Their last winning season came to an end in October of 1992, when a back-up catcher named Francisco Cabrera laced a single into left field, driving home former Pirate, Sid Bream, to end Game 7 of the NLCS. I was twelve-years-old and I'll admit it, I cried. The Pirates were my father's team. He'd spent much of his youth in Pittsburgh, and thus, as was natural, they were my team as well, at least until I was old enough to cultivate my own allegiances. As Bream slid past Mike LaValliere and Barry Bonds' throw arrived just a tad too late from left field, I broke into tears and my father said sternly, unselfconsciously quoting Tom Hanks in A League of Their Own, "There's no crying in baseball."

Obviously, I didn't know how long and how dreadful the slump would be, but even as a kid whose understanding of baseball was largely guided by card collecting, I knew that those Pirates, the team that had be the object of my first baseball infatuation, would not be the same by the time the next season began. My three favorite players were all becoming free agents. Doug Drabek, who'd be the Ace during Pittsburgh's run of three consecutive pennants, and had a career record of 92-62 with a 3.02 ERA as a Pirate, would sign with the Houston Astros. Jose Lind, the slick-fielding second-baseman who entertained fans during batting practice by jumping over teammates, joined the Kansas City Royals. And, of course, Barry Bonds, coming off a year in which he won his second MVP (and it really should've been three in a row), set a new benchmark for free agents by agreeing to a six-year, $43.75 Million contract with the San Francisco Giants.

The Pirates had had their chance to sign the man who led them to three straight pennants. The previous winter Bonds had been prepared to negotiate with the team that drafted and developed him. The Pirates chose instead to prioritize the retention of Andy Van Slyke, who was a fine player, certainly, but, well, I think we can all agree that even at his very best, Van Slyke was no Barry Bonds. And so Bonds walked and Pittsburgh baseball has been cursed ever since.

Not only have they been without a winning season, they've hardly come close. The Pirates haven't even won as many as 70 games since 2004. They've only won more than 75 twice in the last seventeen years. They've been through six managers, two of whom went on to win Manager of the Year with other teams (Jim Leyland and Jim Tracy), and six general managers. When you go back and look at these Pirates teams, you will find very little to be proud of. Since 1992 only five Pirates have recorded even one season of 100+ RBI: Jason Bay, Aramis Ramirez, Brian Giles, Jeff King, and Kevin Young. Bay, Ramirez, Giles, King, and Reggie Sanders are the only Pirates who've hit 30+ HR in a season over that span. To put that in perspective, over the same span, the Yankees have had ten different players who achieve both marks in the same year. And the pitching side of things is even more depressing. Since '92 only one Pirate has had a season of 15 wins. It was Todd Ritchie (15-9) in 1999.

Perhaps it's too soon to label Bonds' curse equal to that of the Billy Goat or the Bambino, but consider this. The general manager who was responsible for letting Bonds walk, Ted Simmons, suffered a heart attack only months after Barry signed with the Giants. Van Slyke, expected to be Pittsburgh's star in the post-Bonds era, hurt his knee midway through '93 and never recovered. He retired in 1995, at the age of 34, after three straight injury-plagued campaigns.

Not only did the Pirates franchise fall into a period of historic suffering following Bonds exodus, even his former teammates had a horrible run of luck. Drabek went 9-18 in 1993 and despite being only 30-years-old never again showed anything resembling the form he'd displayed in Pittsburgh. Lind, just 29, played only one season in Kansas City before his cocaine addiction spiraled out of control. He was out of baseball completely within three years and spent a year in prison after being arrested driving drunk and naked through the streets of KC. Sid Bream, 31, put all he had into that final dash for home. His balky knees gave out for good in '93 and he retired in '94.

Neal Huntington took over as Pittsburgh's GM in 2007. Clearly, he had a lot of work to do, but one has to believe that by 2010 it would be reasonable for Pirates fans to expect to see some progress. Well, Bonds is still officially a free agent? Maybe it's time for the an exorcism.

Free Agents:

Matt Capps (26) RHCL

Arbitration Eligible:

Ronny Cedeno (27) SS
Zach Duke (27) LHSP
Jeff Karstens (27) RHSP

ETA 2010?:

Pedro Alvarez (23) 3B
Jeff Clement (26) 1B/C
Brad Lincoln (25) RHSP
Daniel Moskos (24) LHSP
Steve Pearce (27) 1B/OF
Jose Tabata (21) OF
Donnie Veal (25) LHSP
Neil Walker (24) 3B

One thing you can certainly say about Huntington is that he has a strategy which is crystal clear. During his three season as the helm he has been a trading fool, sending away Jason Bay, Nate McLouth, Freddy Sanchez, Xavier Nady, Jack Wilson, Nyjer Morgan, Adam LaRoche, Salomon Torres, Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Damaso Marte, John Grabow, Jose Bautista, Tyler Yates, Rajai Davis, Eric Hinske, and Ronny Paulino. Basically, if you're a Pirate who's older than 25 and possesses even a modicum of talent which might be marketable to another team, you'd best sign a month-to-month lease.

The good news for Pittsburgh is that via this revolving door Huntington has been able to restock a farm system which was shamefully shallow, especially considering how many high draft picks Pittsburgh has gotten over the last decade. Huntington has been particularly adept at acquiring players who were once considered top prospects but who for whatever reason fell out of favor with their original organizations; examples include Lastings Milledge (Mets/Nats), Jeff Clement (Mariners), Donnie Veal (Cubs), Delwyn Young (Dodgers), Charlie Morton (Braves), Brandon Moss (Red Sox), and Jose Tabata (Yankees). Huntington figures, I assume, that some of these guys may turn out to be as good as professional scouts once believed they would be.

More importantly, Huntington has begun making the most of Pittsburgh's inevitably high draft position. His predecessors squandered top ten picks on guys like J. J. Davis (#8, 1997), Bobby Bradley (#8, 1999), John Van Benschoten (#8, 2001), and Bryan Bullington (#1, 2002). From '93 to '02, Pittsburgh's most successful first-rounders were Kris Benson and Jermaine Allensworth (many of you are saying, "Who?"). Five first-round picks failed to even make it to the major leagues, even for a cup of coffee. For two others, a cup of coffee was all they got.

In recent years, the Pirates have finally drafted and signed some serious talent. Andrew McCutchen, the #11 pick in '05, made a splash this past season as a serious contender for Rookie of the Year (he actually won he BBA version of the award). Paul Maholm, the #8 pick in '03, has become the Pirates top starter (though that isn't saying a whole lot) by making 30 starts in four straight seasons and posting basically a league average ERA (4.45). Neil Walker (#11, 2004), Brad Lincoln (#4, 2006), Daniel Moskos (#4, 2007), and Pedro Alvarez (#2, 2008) have all performed at least decently in the minors and can be expected to arrive in Pittsburgh sometime in 2010.

The major challenge for Huntington and Pirates manager, John Russell, will be figuring out how to get their best hitters into the lineup without entirely compromising their defense. Several of Pittsburgh's most powerful prospects - Garrett Jones, Jeff Clement, Steven Pearce, Neil Walker - are essentially DH types. They will be prone to defensive adventures when slotted at first base and in the outfield. The two main offseason acquisitions thusfar are middle infielders, Akinori Iwamura and Bobby Crosby. When healthy, both are sure-handed and should help to solidify the infield with the help of Andy LaRoche at third base, but injuries have been an issue for both, especially Crosby, a former Rookie of the Year who fell out of favor in Oakland because of his inability to stay on the field.

McCutchen and Milledge make for two thirds of a high-octane outfield. Both are five-tool talents, although Milledge has struggled to demonstrates his skills consistently at the major-league level. The final spot will probably be manned by some combination of Jones, Pearce, and Moss, all of whom can slug a little, but none of which will flash a whole lot of leather.

On the pitching side of things, Pittsburgh surprised most of the baseball establishment by releasing their resident closer, Matt Capps, rather than offering him arbitration. Capps had a bad season in '09, but was as young and talented as any reliever in the organization. Huntington, however, figured the money he would earn in arbitration (probably as much as $5 Million) could be better spent somewhere else. The bullpen will undoubtedly be a major issue again in 2010.

The rotation, however, has some promise. While Pittsburgh still lacks a true frontline starter, the trio of Maholm, Zach Duke, and Ross Ohlendorf will provide more reliable innings than any Pirates rotation in a long while. And the organization finally has some depth to offer for the remaining spots, as Veal, Lincoln, Moskos, Morton, Kevin Hart, and Daniel McCutchen will all get a long look during Spring Training.

Having accumulated a admirable number of talented pieces, Huntington is now faced with the more daunting task of figuring out whether or not those pieces will develop as he'd hoped. That remains to be seen. Wise decisions will need to be made by the front office and the on-field staff to assist in their development.

Huntington seems to have no sense of urgency, which is probably a good thing. He will not rush his best prospects, guys like McCutchen and Alvarez. Even if everything goes exceptionally well, I don't expect 2010 will be the year the Pirates break the curse, but they could very well bypass Houston or Cincinnati (or both) and at least save themselves from a fourth consecutive last place finish.

Projected 2010 Opening Day Roster:

CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
2B Akinor Iwamura (L)
RF Garrett Jones (L)
C Ryan Doumit (S)
3B Andy LaRoche (R)
1B Jeff Clement (L)
SS Bobby Crosby (R)
LF Lastings Milledge (R)
SP Paul Maholm (L)

SP Zach Duke (L)
SP Ross Ohlendorf (R)
SP Donnie Veal (L)
SP Kevin Hart (R)

CL Joel Hanrahan (R)
SU Steven Jackson (R)
SU Javier Lopez (L)
MR Evan Meek (R)
MR Jose Ascanio (R)
SWING Charlie Morton (R)

C Jason Jaramillo (S)
IF Ronny Cedeno (R)
IF Ramon Vazquez (L)
1B/OF Steven Pearce (R)
2B/OF Delwyn Young (S)
OF Brandon Moss (L)

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