You can forgive Pittsburgh Pirates fans their dread during these first few days of free agency. At any moment, they might flip on the tube to learn that their team has spent eight figures on Pat Meares or inked a 38-year-old Japanese pitcher with no major league experience. They might as well avoid all sources of baseball news until mid-February. Medically induced comas could be the answer for those unable to suspend themselves in a state of willful ignorance.
|It's been hard to stomach baseball in Pittsburgh for an awfully long time. (US Presswire)|
If the Pirates fail to eclipse the 80-win plateau again in 2009 -- and there is no reason to suspect they will -- I'm not writing this column again next year. They're just too depressing to contemplate for any length of time. Please, somebody, do something, anything, to save this franchise.
Short-term outlook: Sucky. In the seasons since 1992, the Pirates have won 75, 53, 58, 73, 79, 69, 78, 69, 62, 72, 75, 72, 67, 67, 68 and 67 games. They have sucked on the field and off. They have sucked at home and on the road. Objectively, they have sucked. Subjectively, they have sucked. Statheads think they suck. Joe Morgan thinks they suck. If there is anything within or without the game of baseball that is beyond dispute, it is that the Pittsburgh Pirates suck.
On the other hand, the NL Central hardly looks imposing. Of last year's playoff entrants from the division, the Cubs have several regulars on the sloping side of the age/performance parabola and the Brewers will have lost a big chunk (literally and figuratively) of their starting rotation by this time next week. Only the Reds look poised to take a step forward in 2009, and they're still short one starter, two relievers, a shortstop, a center fielder and a catcher.
For the Pirates, fifth place is not an entirely unrealistic goal. That'll whip the base into a frenzy, eh?
Assets: The Pirates didn't net any future superstars in the deals that exiled Xavier Nady, Damaso Marte and Jason Bay. Still, they added enough arms and bodies (Brandon Moss, Andy LaRoche, Ross Ohlendorf) to erase the need to re-up Jason Michaels and Doug Mientkiewicz (who, against all odds, enjoyed a fine 2008).
What the trades signified was a newfound ability to read the market. Given their ages and contract statuses, none of the players dealt away was ever again going to have as much trade value as they did at last year's deadline. The fact that "recognition of a player's peak value" constitutes progress says a lot about the lowered expectations in play here. Huntington went home that night with a shiny star on his notebook.
What else? Matt Capps throws lots of strikes. Ryan Doumit hits when he's healthy. Adam LaRoche hits after June. Paul Maholm chomps innings. Phil Dumatrait looked pretty OK until his shoulder exploded. The stadium is pretty. So there you go.
Liabilities: The Pirates have wild, fanciful notions of dealing Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez within the next month or two. As I understand it, however, trades require a minimum of two willing parties. There wouldn't appear to be too many teams eager to pay a good-glove-no-bat shortstop $7.85 million or a no-glove-mediocre-bat second baseman $6.7 million. Maybe Wilson and Sanchez will prove fallback options for the teams that miss out on Rafael Furcal, Orlando Hudson and the rest, but the Pirates won't get anything worth having in return and will likely have to eat some salary.
It's way too early to give any kind of a verdict on Huntington. But team president Frank Coonelly's name sure pops up a lot in stories about the team's on-field plans, doesn't it? Probably just a coincidence.
Huntington sure gives sexy sound bites, like this incisive gem bestowed upon MLB.com: "As we are looking at the 2009 Pirates, we'd love to upgrade the offense, upgrade our pitching and rebuild the bench. But ultimately, our focus is on acquiring talent." What he was trying to say, I believe, was, "We lack hitting, pitching and depth, so we're going to try to acquire better players." Sometimes you have to read between the lines.
Non-helpful and semi-realistic suggestions: