There was Jason Bay and Jack Wilson. Before them, Brian Giles and Jason Kendall. Before them, Derek "Operation Shutdown" Bell and Pat Meares. Before them, Al Martin and Jeff King.
Now here come Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata, and the Pittsburgh Pirates are telling us that "we've seen a lot of progress this year. We haven't seen it in wins and losses" and here's the part where you cover your ears and go "la La la La la La la" real loud while they talk.
Or, in this case, as manager John Russell talks.
|Andrew McCutchen is part of a blossoming young core in Pittsburgh. (AP)|
Mid-August, and for the 18th consecutive season, there is zero reason for Pittsburgh sports fans not to pay full attention to the Steelers' training camp.
There go the Pirates (again), 39-73, second-worst record in the majors (thank you, Orioles).
Two days ago, they fired pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and bench coach Gary Varsho.
Heard this story before.
We could go real negative here as the Pirates put the finishing touches on setting a North American professional sports record with their 18th consecutive -- sniff -- losing season.
Or, we could give you this number: 1,467.
Into Tuesday night, that's how many combined at-bats the top four hitters in the Pirates' lineup had in the majors. Fleet center fielder Andrew McCutchen, 21-year-old left-fielder Jose Tabata, second baseman Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez, 23, who has moved from the second overall pick in the 2008 draft into the middle of the Pirates' 2010 order.
When the Pirates chopped their payroll to a major-league low $23 million at the end of last summer (they're at a big league-low $35 million now), these are the names they spoke of when laying out their blueprint for the future (true, the previous several blueprints are in the trash, covered with yesterday's meatloaf and dreams).
Now, 1,467 major-league at-bats among four key players is roughly the equivalent of a pre-school education in the land of Master's degrees. Forget Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols and other icons. The Pirates' quartet entering Tuesday's series opener in San Diego didn't even have half as many at-bats combined as Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez alone (2,979).
You can't fake experience.
You can only wait, swallow hard and ice the lumps you take.
Yes, this does look like the same ol', same ol' from the Bucs.
But this also is part of what general manager Neal Huntington mapped out this spring when he told me he will not look to make a quick-strike for a tempting veteran on the free-agent market that maybe will help the Pirates win five more games one season and push their win total up to, say, 82.
"The playoffs are the goal," Huntington said on that determined spring day. "If we get to 82 wins, OK. But it's not the goal."
Ahem, so far, Huntington and the Pirates are doing a fine job of avoiding utter mediocrity, let alone the playoffs.
Flip side: This also is a much different Pirates team now than it was in April and May given the recalls of Tabata and Alvarez.
The glacial pace of remodeling continues.
"We're a lot younger," Russell says. "The biggest thing is, we got young real fast. This is a group that we've been looking at for a couple of years now, a group that we knew had a lot of talent.
"We're still going through the growing phase, but they're a lot of fun to watch, and we believe in them."
What the Pirates don't believe in -- there is no way to -- is their starting pitching. Though there were some other issues that made Kerrigan and Varsho walk the plank -- Pittsburgh Post-Gazette beat man Dejan Kovacevic wrote of team sources citing "disloyalty" to Russell -- bottom line is, under Kerrigan, the Pirates' rotation has been a shipwreck in 2010: Last in the majors in ERA (5.45) and 29th in the majors in wins (21).
"We'd played 110 games and the starters won 21 games," Kerrigan said in a phone conversation Tuesday. "That's four a month.
"That's unacceptable. Someone should lose a job over that. It's my responsibility. My ass should be on the line. This ain't the minor leagues. This is the majors. It's about results."
After emerging as the Bucs' De facto "ace" last year, Ross Ohlendorf is 1-9 in 2010. He and Charlie Morton together are a combined 2-18. That's killed the Pirates. Ohlendorf continues to slog along in the rotation, Morton is toiling at Triple-A Indianapolis. So, too, is right-hander Brad Lincoln -- his regression being one more demerit on Kerrigan's now-complete Pirates resume. Lincoln was supposed to be in that Alvarez-Tabata-McCutchen core group of the future.
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"We felt like we didn't have a bunch of No. 1's," coming into the season, Russell says. "But we felt like we had guys who would give us consistency from start to start."
Instead, as Alvarez and Tabata move toward ripening, there's a veritable five-alarm fire in the Pirates' organization because their next wave of pitching prospects are at Double-A or lower. Which means Ohlendorf had better turn it around, Lincoln and Morton had better get fixed in the pits in Indianapolis ... or this streak of 18 consecutive losing seasons will turn to 19 ... then 20 ...
"That's something we'll try to address in the offseason," Russell says of starting pitching. "It'll be something we get into this winter."
Huntington attempted to kick-start that process at the trade deadline two weeks ago when he acquired James McDonald from the Dodgers for closer Octavio Dotel. McDonald, 25, pretty much immediately becomes the Pirates ace.
"They're not good," one scout who has seen a lot of the Pirates this summer says in an understatement. "But the young guys they've gotten, especially McCutchen, who's as good a center fielder as there is, and Walker ... they're a more interesting team now.
They're not as dull in the clubhouse since the arrival of Alvarez, Tabata and Co., either.
"It's a little different," says McCutchen, 23. "We're a younger team now. There's a little more energy here. Especially when things are going well. We can see the spread of excitement when we play games, stay in games and when we battle back."
Tabata, recalled on June 9, ranks third in the majors with 36 hits since the All-Star break. When he turns 22 on Thursday, Tabata will have accumulated the third-most hits of any Pirate under that age since 1920 with no more than 385 at-bats, following Dick Groat (109) and Fred Brickell (90). Tabata was at 64 entering Tuesday's opener in San Diego.
Alvarez was recalled a week later, and his seven homers in July tied for the most among all rookies in the majors with Florida's Mike Stanton and San Francisco's Buster Posey. His three-run homer Saturday to beat Colorado in the 10th inning -- after the Pirates had blown a three-run lead in the ninth -- was viewed by many in Pittsburgh as the most exciting Pirates' win ever in PNC Park.
"I don't know if he's going to be the second-best player taken in the ['08] draft, that kind of player," the scout says. "But he's got power. And Tabata can run."
"What they're attempting to do is tough in this day and age," Kerrigan, the fired pitching coach, says. "A $30 million payroll? You have to give them credit for having a lot of guts.
"It's going to take three, four, five years. It's going to be a struggle for the next couple of years. I think if ownership is committed, and if the fans are committed ... it's going to take two or three years to turn the corner."
Even that would be major progress in Pittsburgh, where that elusive corner always is further away than it appears.
But ... the difference now between these guys and the Bays, Giles and Kendalls from years past?
When those guys were keys to the core, they were within a couple years of free agency. Which meant they eventually wound up as July trade bait.
Alvarez, Tabata and McCutchen all can be controlled by Pittsburgh through 2015 or longer.
"You know what, I like it," says Duke, who now has been around for the past six losing seasons. "We did not get rid of the big cogs [at the July trade deadline] this year. And we brought in some youthful guys.
"It's pretty exciting to see these kids grow."
Now, if this plan doesn't work. ...
"We're excited about where we are," Russell says. "We're definitely not excited about our record. But there are some good things happening.
"It's going to take patience. But some really great things are on the horizon for us."