By Jeff Passan
January 13, 2012
2011 record: 72-90
Finish: Fourth place, NL Central
2011 final payroll: $51.8 million
Estimated 2012 opening day payroll: $44 million
Yahoo! Sports’ offseason rank: 27th
To capitalize on the steps the Pittsburgh Pirates took last year, they went into this offseason with a plan: emulate the Houston Astros’ “Killer B’s” core of the 1990s. Fine, maybe not. Though what other explanation can the Pirates put forth after their big offseason maneuvers consisted of signing Clint Barmes, Erik Bedard and Rod Barajas – or, as they’re regarded around the sport, Blah, Blah and Blah.
Serviceable pieces they are. The centerpiece of a plan for a team that swears it’s committed to breaking a streak of losing seasons that could reach two decades this year? Not quite. The Pirates work within a budget. That budget calls for skinflint upgrades, if you want to call them that. Owners of bad teams have two choices: spend money in hopes of improving and drawing fans or skimp on payroll and pray management can fix things on the cheap. Pittsburgh owner Bob Nutting hails from school No. 2.
And so the Pirates gave Barmes $10.5 million (!) to play shortstop the next two years, Bedard $4.5 million for his cocktail of solid pitching and disabled-list frustration, and Barajas $4 million to not get on base. The Pirates also placed a $1.75 million bet on Nate McLouth not having lost all semblance of baseball skills, as it looked he had over the last 2½ years.
That is more than $20 million to essentially stay the same. Ronny Cedeno may not have Barmes’ pop; he also signed with the Mets for $1.1 million and has every bit the glove. Bedard replaces Paul Maholm, a homegrown player who commanded only a quarter-million more and offsets Bedard’s ceiling with consistency. Barajas certainly can catch the ball better than Ryan Doumit; he can’t hit like him, and Doumit went to Minnesota for $1 million less.
Gone, too, are Ryan Ludwick and Derrek Lee, the remnants of last season’s ill-advised go-for-it push in July. The Pirates sensed the NL Central was winnable when they were 53-47 and tied for first place July 25. They finished 24 games behind Milwaukee.
And neither of the three Blahs nor McLouth nor Casey McGehee, acquired in a trade for Jose Veras, can help change that. The Pirates exit this offseason as they entered it: hampered by, for lack of a better term, their utter Pirateness.
The problem here, of course, is that the beginnings of a decent core do exist in Pittsburgh. Any team with Andrew McCutchen in center field cannot claim a bare cupboard. Neil Walker is among the 10 best second basemen in the major leagues. McCutchen is 25. Walker is 26. And by essentially throwing 2012, the Pirates are wasting a season of their best players’ primes and bringing them one year closer to free agency.
Pittsburgh needs to lock up McCutchen and Walker soon, which necessitates Nutting spending money, to which he has shown an aversion bordering on phobia. If Nutting throws a Justin Upton-level deal at McCutchen – six years and $60 million, buying out three years of free agency – it would be tough to turn down and guarantee the Pirates an All-Star-caliber center fielder through his prime. Walker’s case is a bit dodgier, especially since he remains a year from arbitration, but no harm in trying. The Pirates’ savvy spending in the draft and international free agency is no longer possible thanks to the new collective-bargaining agreement, which could free up a nice chunk of change for McCutchen and Walker.
Because with those two anchoring the middle of the field as well as the lineup, the Pirates can start building. Maybe Pedro Alvarez decides being fat isn’t as desirable as not being fat and regains his power swing. Perhaps Jose Tabata evolves from soft-swinging corner outfielder to something valuable. Who knows? Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton could be late bloomers in the Pirates’ rotation, not severe regression candidates because of their awful strikeout rates. Relying on Morton in particular is risky on account of his high walk rate and almost-unsustainable home run rate.
Unless outfielder Alex Presley is a giant anomaly – the slugging 5-foot-9 outfielder – he’ll prove himself little more than a fourth outfielder in April. By which time the Pirates could again find themselves in a familiar spot toward the bottom of the division. Even if some talent feathers its way through the roster, Pittsburgh is dreadful in the field and bad on the basepaths. Its pitchers don’t strike out anyone and its hitters strike out way too much, especially for a group without the home run totals that can make Ks palatable.
“They’re sloppy,” one scout said, and that sounds about right. It takes institutional inadequacy to go 20 years without a winning season, and part of it goes back to the culture. If a team knows it can’t spend money, it must not just preach but practice the things in its realm: the defense, the baserunning, the strikethrowing – the fundamentals. It’s incumbent upon manager Clint Hurdle and GM Neal Huntington to stress this. Because even if they’re going to lose for another year – and they will – the Pirates don’t have to look like a mess doing it.
Hurry up, Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole. Doesn’t matter that Taillon is 20 and Cole 21, that Taillon has a year of professional ball under his belt and Cole not a single pitch. They are the best pitching-prospect duo in baseball, and even if odds say they’re not both going to be aces, the possibility of slotting them at the top of a rotation for six years makes the Pirates’ future far more palatable. Cole is the likelier of the two to reach the big leagues this season, perhaps less than a year after Pittsburgh chose him No. 1 in the draft. Taillon, the No. 2 pick in 2010, needs seasoning after spending last season in Class A. His arrival is likelier late 2013 or 2014. Still, it’s something, and with outfielders Josh Bell, Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman, plus more starting-pitching possibilities, the Pirates do boast one of the better farm systems in baseball. They’ve shown interest in Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, too, though at his expected $40 million price tag? Don’t forget: These still are the Pirates.
Pirates in Haiku
Two more losing years
And Pittsburgh’s futility
Can legally drink