Wednesday, September 22, 2010

What Went Wrong?

Disappointing is the word that I associate with the 2010 Pittsburgh Pirates. Others would prefer words like pathetic, awful or embarrassing.

If anyone expected this team to be good this season, well they don't know baseball very well. This was set up to be the worst season yet for the Pirates, but even I wasn't prepared for them to be this bad.

They weren't going to approach .500 this season, but 50 games under the .500 mark is a bit much even for this team.

It doesn't bother me though, as long as management sticks to the plan. They likely will be in a position to select Antony Rendon with the first overall pick. Keep drafting well.

The goal of competing may be pushed back a season though. Hitting .500 next season and competing the next is a bit unrealistic. A 50 game improvement is next to impossible.

Looking back at this season, what went wrong? Why the dramatic step backwards?

A simple answer would be everything, but I've narrowed it down a bit. This list doesn't include everything but just a quick overview. Feel free to leave your thoughts as well.

1. Starting Pitching:

It's not good when two or three of a teams starters lose double digit games in a season. It's down right awful when five starters have ten or more losses.

The sad part is that the Pirates viewed the rotation as a possible strength going into the season.

Coming off of a solid 2009 campaign, Ross Ohlendorf has exactly one win compared to 12 losses. Sure he's pitched better than than the record indicates, but in the end the numbers don't lie.

Paul Maholm and Zach Duke were counted on to have solid seasons and both took huge steps backwards. Duke was often so bad that he likely won't be tendered in the off-season.

Then there is Charlie Morton, who the Pirates had high expectations for. Instead he delivered a 1-11 record with an 8.81 era.

For the year, the Pirates have used 11 different starting pitchers, which have combined for a 29-80 record and an awful 5.50 era.

Brian Burres and James McDonald have provided bright spots the last few weeks, but it's not nearly enough to off-set the poor performance of the entire starting staff.

2. Free Agents Bust:

Pirates GM Neal Huntington thought he upgraded the roster in the off-season to the point where it could compete in the NL Central. Huntington knew he had future young studs in waiting, but the guys he added in the short term were supposed to help and add depth.

Instead, they were all awful.

Starting with Aki Iwamura, who was supposed to hold down the second base job. The Pirates didn't do the necessary homework on his knee and Iwamura turned out to be damaged goods. The former Tampa Rays second baseman was no where near the player he was in Tampa.

Iwamura had zero range in the field and only hit .182 before being shipped to the minors.

Ryan Church was signed to be a quality fourth outfielder, but hit under .200 and turned out to be an all-around lazy player.

The same for Bobby Crosby who provided zero production.

These guys were all just stop gaps and weren't going to be around anyways, but while they were here, they produced nothing and took at bats away from younger players that should have had them.

It's not all bad news though. Huntington did add some quality bullpen arms through free agency and turned Octavio Dotel and the rest of the bums I mentioned before into James McDonald, Andrew Lambo, Pedro Ciriaco, Chris Snyder and John Bowker.

Also, Iwamura's struggles opened up a spot for Neil Walker to shine.

3. Most of the Returning Players Also Sucked:

I've already detailed how bad the pitchers coming back were, but the everyday players were just as bad.

Ryan Doumit started the season batting in the middle of the line up and has practically played his way out of Pittsburgh. He's been awful both at the plate and in the field.

Andy Laroche was expected to improve, but regressed and is batting .206.

Guys that were on the opening day roster, including: Lastings Milledge, Ronny Cedeno, Jeff Clement, Delwyn Young and others showed no consistency.

Even Garrett Jones failed to meet expectations, although he didn't have a terrible season.

Overall, Andrew McCutchen was the only everyday player on the opening day roster that continues to get better.

4. Road games:

Remember, the goal is to be able to compete. However, for those of you that feel like finishing .500 would be something special; here's an idea. Maybe the Pirates could play every game next season at PNC Park.

At home, the Bucs are a respectable 36-39 on the season. On the road though, it's a much different story, where the Pirates are a miserable 15-59.

How did they ever win 15? It's a miracle.

The Pirates finished the season 5-4 on the road against the Cubs and 2-1 against the Rockies, which means they are 8-55 against the rest of baseball on the road. That's hard to do.

The road record is a huge cause of concern. There's no reason to be that bad on the road.

More often than not, the Pirates don't even compete away from home. All of the blowouts aren't good for the teams confidence.

You can't compete when you have very little chance in 81 games of a 162 game schedule.

5. No Power:

Not having power and run producers in the middle of the line up has been tough to deal with. Especially as bad as the pitching has been.

Pedro Alvarez has shown glimpses of what he will be able to do, but as it stands right now, Garrett Jones leads the club with 20 homers.

The top three Pirates leader in homers: Jones (20), McCutchen (16) and Snyder (14, not all came with the Pirates) are only one more combined then major league leader Jose Bautista(49).

When the Pirates fell behind in games, especially early; before Alvarez, Walker and Jose Tabata were called up, they simply didn't have the bats to compete in games.

6. Fundamentals:

The finger here has to be pointed directly at Pirates manager John Russell. Way too often this season, the Pirates played lazy baseball.

A team takes on the personality of it's manager, and that's the way this team played.

Have you even seen a team lack so many basic fundamentals.

Not knowing what base to throw do. Not being able to lay down bunts. Not being able to hit behind runners. Not being able to turn routine plays on defense and finally the countless base running mistakes all were factors in the countless Pirates losses this season.

Average teams execute most of the time. Good teams execute most of the time. Bad teams, well they play like the Pirates.

That's the most disturbing part. The talent is starting to emerge, but at times it looks like these guys have never played the game before.

Changes will and must be made before next season.

Not everything was bad this season. My next column will be a look at the positive things we saw this season.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Is Zach Duke the worst pitcher in baseball?

Pop quiz: Who is the worst starting pitcher in Major League Baseball over the last four seasons?

If you said Zach Duke, then you nailed it.

The Pirates lefty has flat-out not been very good for a span that's lasted four seasons. In that time he has compiled a 26-51 record and a 4.99 ERA and more than once has led MLB in hits allowed.

He put together a decent first half of 2009, where he was rewarded with an All-Star selection, but if Duke has proved anything, it's that he can't get major league hitters out consistently.

If you say he hasn't been the worst over that span, give me a name, because I've run the numbers on pretty much every pitcher that has had a regular rotation spot.

In 2010, there is no doubt he is the worst pitcher taking a regular turn on an MLB staff. His losses are tied for fifth among pitchers with at least 120 IP. His 5.47 ERA is the second highest, and his .320 opponents batting average against is easily the worst. That's actually embarrassing.

Once or twice out of 10 starts, Duke can turn in a good outing, as he did against the Mets a little over a month ago, but the overall body of work has not been good.

In his latest outing, he couldn't get an out in the second inning. There is no longer an upside to Zach Duke. He can't be a part of the Pirates rotation going forward.

What do you do with Duke?

He's making $4.3 million this year and is third-time arbitration eligible after the season. On innings pitched alone, he's going to get a raise.

The Pirates can't allow that to happen.

The only move that makes sense is to non-tender him after the season. His career as a Pirate should last two or three more starts.

It's very unlikely Duke gets a major league offer from another team. He's looking at signing a minor league deal with an invitation to some team's camp.

The Pirates can't spend over $5 million on a guy that just can't get outs.

The production Duke offers can be found on the waiver wire for a lot less money. Take Brian Burres, for instance. His 3-3 record and 5.75 ERA can be found easily and a lot cheaper than $5 million.

It's almost fitting that the Pirates have the worst pitcher in the game, but to turn the corner, management has to start parting ways with guys that are incapable of getting the job done on a consistent basis.

There is nothing about Duke that warrants him being part of the 2011 Pirates team. It's such a shame after the way he came up as a rookie in 2005. Injuries set him back, and that 2005 Zach Duke was entirely a different pitcher than the guy wearing that jersey now.

Duke fans, enjoy him while you can, because he is more than likely spending his final few weeks in a Pirates uniform.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Pirates Enjoying the Role of Spoiler

The Pittsburgh Pirates have waited all season long to get good outings from their starting rotation. Little did they know that they would have to wait until September against the first place Atlanta Braves. The Bucs received back-to-back solid outings from the likes of Brian Burres and James McDonald. While that’s great for the Pirates, it’s next to crippling for the Atlanta Braves.

While the Pirates are enjoying the the role of spoiler, the Braves offensive struggles have knocked them out of first-place for the time being. The Braves have no one to blame but themselves. Quite frankly there is no excuse for a team like the Braves to get shutdown on consecutive nights by a team that is 44 games under .500 and sports a major league worst 5.12 team era.

Quite frankly, a team that scores one run in 18 innings of play against the Pirates doesn’t really deserve to make the playoffs anyways.

The Braves can and likely will turn things around, but they have to get the bats going. The pitching is there.

One guy who will be heavily scrutinized is first baseman Derrick Lee. Lee has been a total bust since the Braves acquired him and has left a small village on the base paths for Atlanta hitting in the middle of their order.

To make it a successful final season for manager Bobby Cox, the Braves offense must heat up. If they finish the season a game or two out of first, the can look directly back at this series in Pittsburgh as the one that cost them.

For a two game stretch, the Pirates are showing a combination of good pitching, flawless defense and timely hitting.  What happened the other 100 + games.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Does Brandon Moss Deserve another Look?

With a couple more September call-ups likely to be recalled after the Indianapolis Indians complete their regular season, the Pirates face a difficult decision on right fielder Brandon Moss.

Moss lost his right field job in Pittsburgh in 2009 after not being able to provide consistent production. He's coming off a fantastic season at AAA where he was recently voted the clubs MVP.

Moss is hitting for power and driving in runs, something he was expected to do in a Pirates uniform. Moss is currently hitting a respectable .265 with 22 homers and 95 RBI. Granted it's AAA pitching , but for a team that has so little power at the corner outfield spots, has Moss done enough to warrant another look from the Pirates?

A couple things may stand in the way. First, Moss isn't on the 40-man roster at the moment. The Pirates would need to create a spot for him and that seems almost unlikely.

Secondly, if they were to call up Moss, would there be enough at bats to justify it? They aren't going to bring him up to have him ride the bench.

The right field spot is open for competition. If Lastings Milledge isn't the everyday right fielder next season, then the Pirates will need another option. That option isn't Ryan Doumit, who the club will likely explore trade options for during the off-season.

It would be nice to have some power from the right field position. It can't hurt to take another look at Moss, who still has that "P" work attached to his name- potential.

The word potential is thrown around as much as the term "great stuff," but the Pirates haven't been the only club to see something in Moss.

Moss becomes a minor league free agent after the season if he's not called up, so Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington is faced with a difficult decision regarding the 27-year old right fielder. There is little chance Moss would re-sign with the Pirates if that were the case. He would more than likely pursue an opportunity that could lead to a major league opportunity.

With the team going no where, it can't necessarily hurt to take another look at a guy like Moss.

Did the Pirates drop the ball on Aroldis Chapman?

If you've been paying attention lately, the Cincinnati Reds called up left-handed phenom Aroldis Chapman and his 103 mph fastball this week.

That's right, I said 103 mph. He was actually clocked at 105 mph during a minor league game a week ago. Now, I have no problem with Chapman or the fact that he's wearing a Cincinnati Reds uniform. What I have a big problem with is why he's not wearing a Pirates uniform instead.

The deal Chapman signed with the Reds was for six years and $30 million. The sixth year is an option year worth $5 million and the money is spread out pretty liberally. His signing bonus, which is worth around $15 million of the deal, is spread out between when he signed the contract and 2020. That seemed to be the best way for the Reds to fit the big contract into their small budget.

If the Reds could do that then why not the Pirates? What the Pirates do need is a phenom left-hander who can hit triple digits. The Pirates have done a fine job of rebuilding the organization, but this was a guy to go out and get.

There's no excuse. You can't use the usual built in excuse that, "the Yankees will out bid us."

It's one thing to get beaten out by the deep pockets of the Yankees or Red Sox, but being out bid by the Reds shouldn't have happened. That's no knock on the Reds at all. I like what they are doing and good for their organization and their fans.

The Pirates were involved and it's rumored that they fell under $1 million short of Chapman's asking price.

That's absurd.

That should have been exactly the situation where the Pirates swept in and trumped everyone with a bigger number. Give the kid $7-8 million. We keep hearing that money isn't an issue and the Pirates will spend.

Yet in less than a year, the Pirates have lost out on two potential phenoms. They lost shortstop Miguel Angel Sano to the Twins over a mere $500,000 and must now watch Chapman excel for the rival Reds, when maybe a couple more million may have had him wearing a Pirates uniform.

Very few opportunities come along where you can get a guy that can make an impact like Chapman will, and while it's likely Chapman wouldn't have signed with the Pirates, the reality is that they had a chance and once again flat out dropped the ball.

If the Reds can do it then the Pirates better be able to do it as well.

That's right though, money doesn't matter. Remember that when both of these kids become major league stars and the likely only thing that kept them out of Pittsburgh was a tight check book.