While the Pirates’ wholesale commitment to rebuilding is commendable, the current major league team is still one of baseball’s worst. However, being in the National League Central means that the Pirates are not only likely to win more than 70 games for the first time since 2004, but also have a good chance to finish out of last place for the first time since 2006 (thank you, Houston Astros!).
As a group, the Pirates’ position players project as around average, partly due to their smart strategy of buying low on former top prospects whose value has dropped for whatever reason. Homegrown center fielder Andrew McCutchen is the only player here that has real star potential; at only 23, he’s a very exciting young player who is good at the plate and in the field. The rest are much less impressive, but outside of the failed-former-prospect competition between Bobby Crosby and Ronny Cedeno at shortstop, there aren’t any gaping holes. Ryan Doumit is a poor defensive catcher, and his bat isn’t all that great, but that’s still good enough to be at least an average catcher. Second baseman Akinori Iwamura is virtually the definition of league average. Andy LaRoche isn’t the stud he looked like he might become as a prospect for the Dodgers, but he has an adequate bat and a decent glove at third base. In left field, former top Nationals/Mets prospect Lastings Milledge projects as about average, and at 25, he still has some upside (whatever that means). 2009 surprise Garrett Jones projects as around average in right, and reserve outfielders Ryan Church, Brandon Jones and Brandon Moss are quality role players. Former Seattle catching prospect Jeff Clement will start at first, and while his bat isn’t anything special there, if he really bombs, the Pirates can always move Jones back to first and put Church, B. Jones or Moss* in the outfield full-time without losing too much.
* I realize that one of B. Jones or Moss may not survive the roster crunch.
If the nonpitchers are average-ish, the pitching as a whole is… not. Paul Maholm is the only pitcher on staff who projects as clearly above average, and could help a lot of teams, but he’s certainly no ace. At 28, he’s probably as good as he’s going to get. Charlie Morton is a bit younger (26) and looks like a capable #3 starter, and 27-year-old lefty Zack Duke is about league average as well. Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens, Daniel McCutchen and the rest are back-of-the-rotation fodder who will feature all-too-prominently in 2010, and none of them are particularly young. As Bill Simmons might write, if Octavio Dotel is your best reliever, that means Octavio Dotel is your best reliever. The rest of the group isn’t sub-replacement level, but they’re pretty bad, and things could get ugly once Dotel (better suited to middle relief at this point) is traded.
In a strange way, the terrible bullpen is a sign of the front office’s smarts. Yes, it will be hard to watch, but the 2010 (and 2011) Pirates aren’t anywhere close to contention, and no amount of overspending on, say, Brandon Lyon or Jose Valverde would have changed that. A decent bullpen can be constructed much more quickly than a rotation or a group of position players. As for the former, each pitcher is going to be at least one rotation slot higher than they can handle; as for the latter, they should be a respectable group, with a one star-in-the-making, some former top prospects who could still surprise, and solid role players. A mid-70s win total isn’t out of the question, given the divisional opponents, and while that’s hardly something to get excited about, at least the Pirates haven’t compromised their future (by trading away prospects or signing onerous contracts) to attain sub-mediocrity.