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As baseball season opens to the usual round of hot dogs, flat beer, 31-degree temperatures, and the 11 days before Carl Pavano goes on the 60-day DL, all eyes are fixed upon one thing: One of the most hallowed records in the long annals of professional sports, a record many thought would never be broken, is being chased down, and very well may fall in the not-too-distant future. This record is being chased by one of sports' arch-villains, and regardless of the whispers of the use of illegal drugs aiding the chase, yet history beckons. As I'm sure you've already guessed, I'm talking about the Pittsburgh' Pirates quest to break the all-time record for consecutive losing seasons. The record is 16, by the Phillies of the 1930s-1940s era, and the Pirates now stand at 14, with 15, at least if you believe the pundits, a near-mortal lock this year. For a decade and a half now, the Pirates have been living up to their name like no other franchise in sports, with the team's ownership continuing to swindle, loot and pillage the baseball fans of Pittsburgh, who really were excellent fans, once upon a time. Now there are, at least count (in December) 13 Pirates fans left. So this is for you, brave souls. Come, my young apprentice, and we will now pick through the grisly wreckage of this once-proud franchise. The experience is not for the faint of heart, but it will help us become stronger with the Dark Side...

CATCHERS
This is some of the best news for the Pirates, where they have the game's best catcher that you've never unheard of, one Mr. Ronny Paulino. Paulino plays plus defense behind the plate and hit .310/.360/.394 as a rookie last year. Paulino hits for a decent average and has .400+ pop as well, and is already one of the better catchers in the league. PECOTA lists among his top historical comparables such luminaries as Ray Fosse, Javy Lopez, and Terry Kennedy, who were all fine catchers in their time. A correspondent in Altoona, where Paulino played for a year, reports that he had "the nicest butt on the team" down there in AA, and that counts for something. Humberto Cota is a perfectly competent backup catcher. .240/.287/.389 makes you wince, but you have to realize that that's about what most backup catchers hit these days. The Pirates are no man's idea of smart, but if they were, they'd use Ryan Doumit to spell Paulino more often. But anyway, with a full year of Paulino on board, you have to figure the Pirates will realize a game or two's improvement here.

INFIELD
This is where it starts to get fun. Adam LaRoche is just like that robotic puppy you saved up your money for three months to get, back in 1999: He'll do exactly what Adam LaRoche does, and by May the Pirates will be saying, "Oh... so he was just Adam LaRoche, after all." Suffice it to say that trading a legit prospect and a good pitcher for LaRoche was a little... uninspired. LaRoche really did rake last year -- .284/.357/.561 in a pitcher's park -- but it was way out of line with his previous performances, and the Pirates are getting your basic humdrum .270/.335/.500 first baseman. That's not bad, but it's not the kind of thing that's going to result in any flags being hoisted in the City of the Three Rivers, and the Pirates are going to regret giving away Brent Lillibridge. So far, we're looking pretty good, though; we have an above-average catcher and an above-average first baseman. Let's go on... No, that wasn't somebody's idea of an April Fools' Joke in October: Freddy Sanchez really did win the NL batting title last year, hitting (wait for it) .343 and providing Exhibit Z-36 for the case that rating hitters by batting average is like accepting a car salesman's first offer. You just might be asking the wrong questions. The Pirates' 13 remaining fans are really excited about Freddy, but you have to remember, they've been accustomed to things like the Carlos Garcia Experience. Freddy does have the ability to hit about .300. He's severely allergic to walks, doesn't hit for power and doesn't run... but consarn it, he's a .300 hitter!!!! Realistically, you can understand why the Pirates want to move him to second, because Sanchez doesn't really have the bat for third, and the alternative is another go-round with Jose Castillo. Jack Wilson spent much of the winner telling everyone that Jose Castillo was the next Joe Morgan, leading rational beings like myself to wonder where I can get some of whatever Jack Wilson's been smoking. Scouter Jack tells us that Castillo is just the most athletic guy he's ever seen. Take this as fair warning, baseball fans: now is the time to start praying to whatever God, gods or lack thereof you choose to please please please never let Jack Wilson become the GM of your team. Jack's boy Jose played second every day last year. Let's list his accomplishments:

  • .253 batting average. He doesn't hit singles.
  • .299 on-base percentage. He doesn't take walks.
  • .382 slugging percentage. He doesn't hit doubles, triples or home runs.
  • 6 stolen bases, 4 caught stealing. He doesn't run.
  • A truly spectacular 23 runs below replacement level with the glove, according to Davenport Translations. He's one of the worst defensive second basemen in the game.

So what we have here, folks, is a total whitewash, a legitimate zero-tool player. He can't hit, can't run, and can't play the field. And the Pirates have been playing him mostly regularly for three years. Just in case you were wondering how exactly the Pirates managed 14 straight losing seasons. I imagine Jack Wilson dreams of playing with Neifi Perez and Angel Berroa flanking him. Speaking of Jack, he's not exactly the kind of stuff you take home to introduce to your parents, either. Just when you thought Jose Castillo's line was grisly, here we have Scouter Jack at .273/.316/.370, with 4 stolen bases, in nearly 600 PAs. So here again we have a guy that can't hit for average, never walks, and has no power. Scouter Jack really is a good defensive shortstop, but not so good that you'd actually want him playing every day. He's a good utility guy to have around. Truthfully, he's a white-boy clone of Neifi!, which probably bodes well for a long career in the psychedelic world of modern baseball management. Not even the Pirates are dumb enough to give a guy like this a $7 million a year contr... uh... I'm not sure what Jose Bautista did to Dave Littlefield's auntie, but between the Rule 5 fiasco of 2003/2004 and Littlefield's apparent deliberate desire to publicly humiliate him in center field last year, you have to wonder. Someday, Michael Lewis needs to write a book about this guy, who has enjoyed one of the weirdest careers I can remember. He was a decent semi-prospect once upon a time, but in 2004 he played in the majors for three different teams: The Devil Rays (15 PA), the Royals (26 PA), and the Pirates (43 PA). That the man didn't hang himself in his hotel room that year should qualify him for a motivational-speaking career. Then he went to Altoona in 2005 and tore up the Eastern League real good, perhaps motivated because the Altoona Curve were the most talented team he'd played for in his pro career and Blair County Ballpark packed in the most fans he'd ever seen at one time. Anyway, he's standard-issue third-base fluff nowadays, a .340/.440 guy who plays OK defense. There are many guys like that bouncing around, but none of them can tell stories like Jose Bautista can. Last year's infield was Sanchez, Wilson, Castillo and the stiff-of-the-day at first. Sanchez is going to decline -- nobody can sustain a punchless .340 batting average except your odd Ichiros and Gwynns -- but if he can handle second without hurting himself, Bautista at third is sure to be a big upgrade over Castillo at second. With LaRoche significantly upgrading first, the Pirates should expect a net gain here, perhaps as much as three wins, assuming Sanchez plays and Castillo doesn't. So far we're up four wins, roughly speaking. However, if injuries happen up the middle, the Pirates have a problem, as we'll see in a moment when we discuss the bench.

OUTFIELD
Jason Bay has been the best corner outfielder in the National League for two years running, and at only 28 this year, there's no reason to expect him to stop doing that thing he does, even if he bears a slight resemblance to E.T. Bay is basically a righthanded Brian Giles clone, with exactly the same skill set as Giles: Can hit around .290, excellent plate discipline, 30-35 HR power, vastly underrated baserunner (Bay stole 21 bases in 2005 -- and was only caught once!), excellent defender in left who can actually play at least an average center if he needs to (Giles did play some center when he was in Pittsburgh.) Bay is a legitimate superstar; watching him play, you can't help but wonder when the Pirates' major league affiliate is going to call him up. Actually, Giles and Bay basically are Barry Bonds Extra Lite; it seems like there's some kind of law that the Pirates have to have a five-tool star in left field, even if it took them a few years to realize Al Martin ain't all that and a bag of chips. It appears that the Pirates have finally decided to mercifully end the grim spectacle that was the Nate McLouth experience. McLouth is still only 25, and perhaps he can still improve, but "improvement" in his case means moving up from "maybe the worst player in baseball" to "acceptable fifth outfielder if you're really desperate." A below-average defensive center fielder who sports a gruesome .683 OPS isn't very difficult to replace, even for the Pirates, who have honed in on Chris Duffy over Rajai Davis. All of these guys' main career feat is a big year in AA; there must be something in the *ahem* water in Altoona that makes center fielders go nuts. Duffy played half-time in center last year and slugged an incredible .338. That's below his established level, though, and Duffy should be able to slug .410 or so in the majors. PECOTA projects Duffy to go .287/.339/.413 with 25 steals and average defense. That ain't terrible, but it's more the stuff good fourth outfielders are made of. Xavier Nady is going to man right field this year, as the Pirates seem determined to torture their young pitchers with mediocre center fielders and guys in right field that might just as well bring a bat out in the field with them as a glove. Nady isn't as comical out there as Craig Wilson, but he isn't going to remind anyone of Ichiro, or even Brian Giles. The bat will play -- a projected .281/.337/.470 isn't terrible -- but the Pirates have a pretty big outfield at PNC Park and could use some guys who have some of that, whatyacallit, "range" stuff. The Pirates are costing themselves some wins with their outfield decisions. The most obvious problem is center field, where they're going to play Duffy and use McLouth as the fourth outfielder. But their best option in center is actually the guy they sent back to Indianapolis, Rajai Davis. At the plate Davis and Duffy are so similar that they're really indistinguishable, but Davis is a plus defender in center, Duffy isn't, and Davis runs like the wind, Duffy doesn't. In full time duty, there's no reason Rajai couldn't go .280/.335/.400 with 40 steals and plus defense. You don't have to squint all that hard to see Dave Roberts. The dead-obvious Right Thing for the Pirates is to semi-platoon Davis and Duffy and let Nate McLouth find some more suitable line of work, like night security guard or something. Then you have an actual major-league outfield complete with a good fourth outfielder, and you save a roster spot that you can use to keep some kind of one-tool specialist around, like a pinch runner or a Jack Cust. All in all, the Pirates are probably just treading water in the outfield as compared to last year, and there's still hope they'll realize that Nate McLouth strongly resembles Nate McLouth.

BENCH
Like many teams, the Pirates have made the frankly stupid decision to carry twelve pitchers, stringing their bench quite thin. Here's the five guys they have on their bench most nights:

  • Humberto Cota. Your garden-variety backup catcher. Plays decent defense, can't hit.
  • Ryan Doumit. Decent corners utilityman. Doumit really should be the club's backup catcher, especially since his defense there really hasn't been too bad. As it is, he provides the Pirates with the flexibility to pinch-hit for Cota while giving Paulino a day off. Supposedly he can play some third, but I'm skeptical. He's nice to have around in case Paulino or LaRoche hurts himself.
  • Jose Castillo. A zero-tool player, a total waste of a roster spot.
  • Nate McLouth. See Jose Castillo. 
  • Brad Eldred. A 300 pound behemoth that can really hit for power. Eldred is a poor man's Cecil Fielder, and in fact, Fielder shows up in PECOTA as Eldred's #4 comparable. Of course, that's Cecil Fielder 1990, so maybe the Pirates ought to be playing this guy every day, but as it is, Eldred doesn't hit for average, doesn't walk, doesn't run and doesn't field. Given regular playing time, you'd expect something like .240/.290/.490. That isn't really good enough to play every day, but you have to realize that the upside is that he randomly hits .290, and then you get Cecil Fielder 1990 or Ryan Howard 2006. Anyway, Eldred's a very nice tactical weapon whose availability should provide strong discouragement against LaRussa bringing in his beloved LOOGYs. (LOOGY = Lefthanded One Out GuY. Every team has one or two or three of them.)

The Pirates also toyed around in the spring with having Eldred play left field. Trust me: Eldred in left field would be the funniest thing you ever saw, as long as you're not one of the 13 remaining Pirates fans. Even so... even so, in a small park against a left-handed pitcher, the Pirates would probably benefit from playing Eldred in left and Bay in center. Eldred's raw power is something that can really help you if you're creative in finding ways to take advantage of it. So here we find the Pirates falling apart. With Eldred and Doumit, they're covered if LaRoche gets hurt, but if Freddy Sanchez or Xavier Nady or, God forbid, Jason Bay hurts himself, they're cooked, because their bench is genuinely awful. Rajai Davis really should be in Pittsburgh, but beyond him, they don't really have anything better, and the Pirates have demonstrated for years that they have no idea how to find free talent. And that's the rub: If the Pirates had any intelligence to find decent bench players, they might actually be a respectable team. But as it is, they come out quite thoroughly mediocre. They have a superstar left fielder, a good first baseman, a good catcher, and then they have mediocrities at third and right, a bad player at short, and an OK player at second who hasn't shown he can even stay healthy at second, much less be a decent glove there. And there's nothing on the bench to back them up. Sanchez getting hurt means more of the Jose Castillo experience; Duffy faltering means another dose of Nate McLouth, and God knows what happens if Jack Wilson hurts himself. All told, the Pirates's position players are a little better than they were last year, but not a lot, and I can't help but think they've missed an opportunity to improve significantly at the margins.

STARTING PITCHING
The Pirates provide a fine context for pointing out a common misunderstanding: Unlike position players, pitchers do not reliably peak around age 27. In fact, most pitchers are at their peak, physically, by about age 24. Depending on when they entered professional ball and when they reached the major leagues, they can and do improve by virtue of experience, but really, if a guy's 24 or older and has been in the major leagues 2-3 years, he's about as good as he's ever going to be. You've seen high-profile exceptions like Randy Johnson and Jamie Moyer, but for the most part pitchers get good quickly, and after that it's a matter of whether or not their arms explode. This brings us to Zach Duke. This will be Duke's second full year in the majors, and he's 24, so this is the year we find out whether he's Tom Glavine, or whether the Pirates are going to have to settle for Mark Buehrle or Jim Abbott. Duke put up a 4.47 ERA over 215 innings last year, which isn't really too terrible considering he was 23, it was his first full season, and the defense behind him was doing him no favors. That said, Duke's approach may remind some of Tom Glavine, but his results shouldn't; he doesn't strike people out, and his walk rate is too high to make him a top-shelf pitcher. He would have to cut the walk rate significantly and continue keeping the ball in the park to take the next step. It's more likely that we're looking at an above-average pitcher, a decent #2/#3. That's the problem with the Pirates' young rotation: You hear a lot about them because it's the Pirates and there isn't anything else to say something nice about, but it's really a bunch of #4 types whose upsides are "decent #2/#3," not "stud." Tom Gorzelanny's supposed to be the flamethrower, but he's actually substantially similar to Duke in his performance. Gorzelanny doesn't get ground balls the way Duke does, but his K/BB is similar, with a few more strikeouts and a few more walks. Right now, Gorzelanny's in the same boat as dozens of other young AAA-type pitchers: Either he'll drastically cut his walk rate and become a good major league pitcher, or he won't and he'll bounce around posting 4.80 ERAs until his arm falls off or he gets old, whichever comes first. He's had various minor injury issues while coming along and already is having minor injury issues this year, so it bears watching. The Pirates invested a high first-round pick in Paul Maholm, which is why you've heard about him, but he also is 25 and by the end of the year we'll know how good he really is. He's Zach Duke Lite: High ground ball percentages and a K:BB that just isn't going to fly in the majors. Once again, a reduction in walk rate is needed for Maholm to be anything more than fourth-starter fluff. Haven't had enough yet? Then let's take a look at yet another 25-year-old pitcher entering his second full season: One Mr. Ian Snell. Snell has the best peripherals among the Pirates' collection of starters, and has the highest ceiling among them as a result. Snell's the only pitcher on the team that has a seriously high strikeout rate, and his walk rate is lower than Paul Maholm's. Snell's ground ball percentages are in the low-40s, which won't get him confused with Derek Lowe, but that's not half-bad. Snell's ERAs in the majors have consistently been worse than his peripherals say they should be. I'm going to do something shocking here and say something nice about a Pirate: I think it's luck, and Snell really could surprise us all with a 3.30 ERA and 15 or 16 wins. As with the rest of these guys, this is a make-or-break year for him. Right now the fifth starter is supposed to be Tony Armas Jr., but 1. The over/under on his next injury is 10 days, and 2. When he does get hurt, no one will notice, because even the Pirates have a dozen guys lying around that are as good as Tony Armas Jr. There's nothing inspiring to say about the bullpen, which figures to be as average as bullpens come. Here's a quick rundown of each of the players, and it's up to you whether they're enacting a drama, a tragedy or a comedy:

  • Shawn Chacon. If it weren't for that big two months in New York back in 2005, he'd be selling insurance by now, but the Pirates are addicted to these Brian Boehringer types. Chacon's main job appears to be the Boehringer role of reliably giving up home runs in the seventh inning of close games.
  • John Wasdin. If John Wasdin is on your major league roster, that means John Wasdin is on your major league roster. I would be surprised if he were still around come August.
  • Juan Perez. Juan Perez has the potential of being a good story: He's a 29 year old minor-league veteran with a live arm who's battled back from some injury issues in the past but now could potentially be an average reliever out of the Pirates' pen. ... OK. I made all of that up. I've never heard of Juan Perez, and neither have you. He's AAA fodder, but truthfully, the chances are strong that he won't be any worse than any number of guys out there who are making $2 million a year.
  • Jonah Bayliss. Bayliss actually isn't a terrible pitcher, and he should stick as the long man, getting plenty of work entering in the fifth inning with the Pirates trailing 6-0 and putting up lots of two innings, one run performances.
  • Damaso Marte. Bet you didn't know Damaso Marte is still around. Remember him? The guy who was good for 15 minutes with the White Sox? He's the Pirates' resident LOOGY now. He did OK, nothing embarrassing, nothing special, last year, and should provide the same this year. Not exactly a fantasy sleeper.
  • Matt Capps. Pirates fans should be hoping Capps stays in the setup role all year, given that the setup man on most teams pitches more important innings than the "closer." Capps is the best reliever on the team, and he has the 85 games, 80 innings stat line last year to prove it. The best thing about him is a very low walk rate and decent groundball rate to go with his middling 5.6 K/9, an odd combination for a guy who throws mid-90s gas. Capps is 23 and, if he doesn't hurt himself, could step up to become one of the better relievers in the game.
  • Salomon Torres. Torres gets kicked around a lot, and I've seen the Pirates made fun of for handing the "closer" role to him this winter, but there are many better things to make fun of the Pirates for. Torres is a good reliever and has been ever since he got to Pittsburgh. He pitched an eye-popping 94 times last year and actually kicked his strikout rate up significantly, quite unusual for a 35-year-old. The K rate increase won't stick, but he'll still be good for 80 or 90 quality innings. Making him the "closer" is seriously misusing him -- guys that can pitch 80-90 times a year don't grow on trees, so why pigeonhole them into a 55 apparances, 45 innings role? -- but he'll keep doing that thing he does.

As you've seen, then, the back end of the Pirates' bullpen is pretty solid, and has the potential to be very good if Capps steps up. The front end isn't very good, but in this case, it doesn't have to be, since the Pirates will mostly be using the long guys when their starter got kicked around and the game's over by the sixth inning anyway. There's a legitimate question as to what happens if/when someone besides Armas gets hurt, because John Wasdin is four parts problem if one part solution, and when a Pirates fan closes his eyes at night, the horror that confronts him is named Jon van Benschoten.

CONCLUSION
For the Pirates to win 80 games, the following things need to happen:

  • Ronny Paulino, Adam LaRoche, and Jason Bay all need to stay healthy and approximate their 2006 performances.
  • Jack Wilson needs to get the OBP up at least to .340 or so.
  • Nate McLouth and Jose Castillo need to stay off the field.
  • One of the hitters needs to have an unexpectantly strong year: Xavier Nady or Chris Duffy or, if the Pirates get around to bringing him up, Rajai Davis. Freddy Sanchez's decline won't be easily replaced.
  • One of their group of young starters needs to at least step up to being a good pitcher/#2 type.
  • Capps and Torres need to have the good years expected of them.

If that seems like a bit of a stretch to you, you're paying attention. More likely the Pirates are going to wind up around 70 wins, with randomness (luck and injuries) deciding who among them, the Reds and the Astros gets to be baseball's only sixth-place team this year. In the end, the lack of any kind of really strong pitcher and the black hole that is their up-the-middle positions takes too much away from them to take them seriously. The general consensus of writing off the Pirates is legitimate, and you 13 remaining fans can look forward to a Run for the Glory in 2008.