Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Offseason Review: Pittsburgh Pirates

The past few years, the Pirates have started their seasons with such tenacity that even the slothiest, drunken Milwaukee homer has had to concede that they don't look like the pitiful and hapless bunch of dopes they were only a few years ago. In 2012 they took the first place slot in the NL Central and took everyones attention as a potentially very exciting dark horse candidate. Then July happened and everything fell apart. The mix of young undeveloped talent and very, very veteran presence couldn't sustain themselves, and the Pirates plummeted in to their twentieth consecutive losing season. This motif is getting very old for Pittsburgh fans.

Manager Clint Hurdle's face basically says it all.
The way Pirates GM Neal Huntington has responded to this record of prolonged failure is a little perplexing to me.  The only legitimate gold that his draft board has yielded that's been an impactful big league presence is Andrew McCutcheon. There are a few good-ish players (Neil Walker, maybe Pedro Alvarez) who could contribute to a solid run, but they are weighed down by a massive body of mediocrity. Walker hitting slightly above average isn't going to matter if Michael McHenry or Garrett Jones is expected to knock him in. This puts Huntington in an extremely awkward, difficult-to-apply-blame-to position.  Building the right chemistry between young and developing talent and influential veteran presence in an environment where losing is becoming an inexcusably tired theme is a frustrating and extremely difficult one, especially when you're given extreme budgetary constraints.

New Pirates catcher Russell Martin,
PIRATED from the Yankees. Har har.
Sadly, it looks like the Bucs strategy isn't going to shift too far off course from 2012 to 2013. The tactic of adding old, former Yankees who are past their prime has repeated itself in the signing of backstop Russell Martin.  Martin signed a 2 year $17MM contract after posting a pretty modest .211/.311/.403 line last year in the Bronx. The signing caused a little bit of commotion in the world, not because it was particularly intelligent per se, but because the Pirates outbid the Yankees for a player. Martin does figure to be an upgrade over Rod Barajas, but to what end?  Replacing one mediocre, aging backstop with a slightly better but much more expensive one enhance a team like the Pirates in to competitive relevance.

Notorious bathroom slipper, Francisco Liriano
Russell Martin may not be the only major signing by the Bucs. The signing of Francisco Liriano was all but official until the requisite physical necessary for completing a player's signing revealed a broken arm. Apparently Liriano damaged his non-throwing arm in a "bathroom fall", an injury claim as vague as it is suspiciously silly. Whether or not the injury happened by it's claimed cause doesn't matter, the alleged bathroom tumble has gummed up the works quite a bit. As of tonight, Liriano is still officially a free agent, but the latest reports suggest that he has agreed to a newly worded contract containing "protective language" ala Mike Napoli's new deal with Boston. What does it mean though? Adding a pitcher who hasn't posted an ERA under 5.00 in two seasons doesn't bode well for the fragile Pittsburgh roster.

The two things I've seen make sense out of the Pirates front office are the trading of Joel Hanrahan and the re-signing of Jason Grilli. Grilli will be a fine stopgap closer and ultimately a decent trade chip if the  Pirates do what I expect, which is implode again and again for a few more years until the talent they still have in the minors continues to develop. Their isn't really anyone to blame for this, and Pirates fans owe it to their General Manager to be patient for a few more years. Losing has been such a constant for the Pirates that Neal Huntington couldn't help but inherit a losing team. Trading their all-star closer is a conscientious move proving that an attempt is being made, despite limited resources, to right the ship in Pittsburgh.

Pirates prospect Jameson Taillon
The other moves have been or minuscule importance. Trading Chris Resop for Zach Thornton and signing Brad Hawpe isn't going to bring a ring to PNC Park. The Pirates won't taste victory in the NL Central as long as the Cardinals and Brewers are relatively competent and the Reds are in powerhouse mode. All pessimism aside, their farm system provides things to be optimistic about.  Players like Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole will be major league ready while Andrew McCutchen is still an elite player, and when that time comes, the Pirates will be a force.

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