BUCCOS - FJM STYLE
It's no mystery how the Pirates got in this position. For years, Pittsburgh has been a repository for second-tier free agents with nowhere else to go. At the same time, the Pirates have squandered too many high draft picks on under-performing or sore-armed pitchers. The decision to select Brian Bullington ahead of B.J. Upton in the 2002 draft ranks high on the list of gaffes.
The Bucs got into the habit of blowing all their money on castoffs that no other team wanted, as if the dollar figure spent trumped the talent level acquired. If books are ever written about how not to build a team, the Bucs 1993-2008 will be mentioned on every page. Even high school kids playing fantasy baseball know that you draft hitters and develop pitchers. You simply don't take a pitcher in the first round. You just don't do it, even if you can cite examples where it has worked out in the past. The best pitchers are years away from being big-league ready and are walking injury risks whereas the best hitters just need some seasoning against good curveballs while an injury leads to a position change, not retirement.
Pittsburgh's offseason haul consists of Chris Gomez, Ray Olmedo, Casey Fossum, Jaret Wright, Elmer Dessens, T.J. Beam, Luis Rivas and Hector Carrasco. The Pirates even lost out in the Paul Bako and Johnny Estrada backup catcher sweepstakes. It's part of the organization's new mind-set of placing a suitable market value on available players and then walking away if the numbers don't compute. "It would have been easy to stretch beyond our comfort level just to make something happen,'' Huntington said. "But we need to make decisions for the right reasons -- not to appease fans in December or grab headlines in January. We need to always make good baseball decisions. We're not hiding behind our market size. But it's the same thing that Milwaukee, Cleveland, Minnesota, Arizona and Oakland face. We have to make good financial decisions as well.''
The names are not recognizable but I don't expect the Bucs to field a competent team this year in any scenario so they are focusing on putting together a roster of guys who come cheap and take the field. I don't have a problem with the mentality of walking away from a free agent when the numbers don't compute, especially in the current stage of rebuilding. I do have a problem with lumping the Bucs in with MIL, CLE, MIN, ARI, and OAK because PIT is attempting by association to gain access to a club in which they do not belong. Sure, all of those teams are fellow small markets, but there is something striking that all of those other teams are that the Bucs are not - good teams. All of those teams are swimming in talent under the age of 25 and all of those teams are legitimate contenders. Sure, OAK had a rough year in '07, but that was the exception to a multi-year trend of success in which books were published about how to build a team the OAK way. The Bucs have not even seen a book published on the opposite subject - they have simply wallowed in mediocrity and gotten comfortable with it.
The Pirates recently broke ground on a $5 million facility in the Dominican Republic with a weight room, training area, covered batting tunnels and enough dormitory space to accommodate 90 players and coaches.
This is relatively good news but were you as surprised as I to discover that PIT is just now doing this? Haven't the Dodgers been doing this for at least twenty years? Weren't the Bucs the holy grail of Dominican baseball even before I was alive when Roberto Clemente was revered by Latinos everywhere? WTF is going on that PIT is just now breaking ground in the Domincan Republic? MLB rosters are already 25% Dominican players - this is not the beginning of a trend, it is a well-entrenched demographic shift that has been occurring over the past forty years! In fact, the Dominican has been so thoroughly over-mined that most teams have already moved on to Venezuela and even South Korea by now. Oh well, welcome to the party, Buccos. At least it is a move to spend money wisely rather than paying for Operation Shutdown at the big league level.
The team will be more diligent about monitoring medical information in an effort to avoid the pitching injuries that befell so many prospects in recent years. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Pirates will send several pitchers each summer to Dr. James Andrews' medical institute in Birmingham, Ala., for biomechnical analysis in hopes of detecting minor glitches before they spiral into serious problems.
Nothing to critique here. This is actually smart thinking. The old adage "a stitch in time saves nine" is the guiding principle here. When players you are counting on get injured, it is major-league bad news, especially for a team with a slim margin between the best team it can field as compared to the best squad a random AAA organization can field. Sending pitchers to Andrews during the offseason for wellness physicals sounds like the best use of money the Bucs have spent in many years.
"I've read articles on Mike Scioscia, and people marvel at how every day before batting practice he's out there working with players on relay throws, going first to third or whatever,'' Coonelly said. "This is a full-time job, and that's the way it should be. That's not always the way it has been here.''
Coonelly makes a good point but I am still sad to learn that the Pirates front office learns how to play winning baseball by reading articles.
Still, in spite of all those changes, it will be a challenge for the Pirates to sniff .500 in 2008. The offense ranked 23rd in the majors in runs scored, and the pitchers were 25th in strikeouts and 26th in ERA. It's a lot to expect significant improvement even if Coonelly is correct that the team "badly underperformed'' in 2007.
I am encouraged that the Bucs scored more runs last season than seven legitimate major league teams. I'm not kidding - this sucky team crossed the plate just one time fewer than STL, who boasts Albert Pujols in the middle of their lineup. The pitching was subpar but coming out of spring training, I actually foresaw good things from that rotation. Tom Gorzelanny showed us something and Ian Snell looked great in the first half. Paul Maholm is serviceable and Zach Duke still shows promise. I'll never understand the $10 million for Matt Morris, but that contract can't last forever and may someday stand as the final bonehead move this team made before they turned it all around in 2008.
During the recent PirateFest event, outfielder Jason Bay caused a flap when he questioned the lack of offseason activity.
I'm sure Bay is a nice guy, but you just can't go around saying stuff like this when there are serious questions concerning your own lack of in-season activity. Bay is supposedly healthy this year and could have a big season if LaRoche and Nady agree to produce as well, with Freddy Sanchez and mystery centerfielder getting on base ahead of them.
Said Huntington: "I think any city or sports franchise becomes frightened when their fans are apathetic. Our fans are definitely not that. The foundation is there. When we build this and start to win and compete, this place is going be electric.''
This much is true. Theirs is one of the best fan-bases in all of baseball. The Steelers consistently field competent teams and consistently maintain a stadium full of rabid towel-wavers. The fans want the baseball equivalent and will show up when the stigma dissipates.