Inside Look: Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates baseball logo (old school)Fascinating, isn’t it? That a team could be so physically close to the NY-metropolitan area, and yet have little or no consequence in the minds of most Mets fans?

Pittsburgh is only about 300 miles from Flushing, but it may as well be a million. The average Mets fan (excluding the loyal diehards reading this blog, of course) might be able to name two Pirates players off the top of their head — most likely, the two former Mets Xavier Nady and Jason Bay. After that, it’s a lot of “umms” and “uhhhs” as they search their mind — or their fantasy team — for another Bucco ballplayer.

So, we’re counting on Cory Humes, Director of Baseball at the Most Valuable Network and columnist for the Pittsburgh Lumber Co. (c’mon, you remember Willie Stargell, Dave Parker, and the rest of the hard-hitting gang of the 1970s, don’t you?) to give us the scoop on the Pirates.

1. At the beginning of the season, things in Pittsburgh were looking optimistic. You had good young arms in the rotation and at the end of the bullpen, strong defense, and power-hitting Adam LaRoche added to an already impressive, up and coming lineup. The Pirates’ talented youth looked on the verge of turning a corner. Today, however, the Pirates are fighting to stay out of the cellar. What happened?

The problem, I think, was that the Pirates were counting on too many unknowns. On Opening Day, I said that if all went well, the Pirates would be a .500 baseball team (and as such, capable of staying competitive in a weak NL Central). Of course, that was before Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny emerged as legitimate starting pitchers, before LaRoche hovered around the Mendoza line in April (as Bay did in June), and before a shuttle service started for relief pitchers going back and forth between Pittsburgh and Triple-A Indianapolis.

Quite simply, the Pirates’ supporting players — Bautista, Duffy, Paulino, Wilson — haven’t done nearly as much as optimists had hoped, and our two big bats haven’t seen the ball all that well. Outside of three or four starting pitchers, the roster has disappointed. Long story short: Decent pitching, but no offense.

2. Your opinion on Jim Tracy — in game management and his handling of the ballplayers.

Tracy’s being run out of town by the hardcore fans, but I’ve always appreciated his skills as a manager. Like Lloyd McClendon before him, I think it’s unfair to evaluate Tracy based on what he’s done with this roster. The Pirates would have you believe they’re underperforming, but I think that the biggest contributor to our losing tradition is a sheer lack of talent.

That being said, Tracy’s insistence on using players with low on-base percentages — Chris Duffy, Nate McLouth, Jack Wilson, Matt Kata — near the top of his batting order is frustrating. He’ll find playing time for a hot stick, but he writes curious lineups cards (to say the least).

Given the Pirates’ weak bench and lack of relief pitching past Capps, Torres, Marte and Chacon, you can’t question his in-game decisions much. He doesn’t have the options other major-league managers do.

3. Zach Duke may be back before the end of August. Yet, he’s been the subject of trade rumors here and there. Do the Pirates have reason to send him away, or is it more wishful thinking on the part of pundits and fans outside of Pittsburgh? (Can we send you a good young outfielder for him?)

You’re a witness to the Pirates’ main reason to send him away — Oliver Perez. Duke is broken, and we probably can’t fix him. Other teams, though, see our ineptitude and are convinced that with the right coaching, they can coax our castoffs back to form. Bronson Arroyo comes to mind as another player whom Pittsburgh gave up on too early.

The Pirates need to trade pitching for hitting in the worst possible way, and I seriously doubt that Ian Snell’s headed anywhere for less than a king’s ransom. With four lefties in the rotation (and another, Sean Burnett, looming in the minors), it makes sense to deal a southpaw. Still, Dave Littlefield has publicly said he’s reluctant to send away such a valuable commodity. You can’t blame him for that — if everyone else wants our starters, shouldn’t we, too?

4. Why did it take so long to give Matt Kata a shot? Is he someone to find a place for, or simply on a hot streak?

Because he’s 29 years old, and the Pirates have a stable of other infield options — Freddy Sanchez, Jose Bautista, Jack Wilson, Jose Castillo, and now Cesar Izturis. Kata’s played well in a couple of starts, so you’ll likely see him in the lineup Tuesday. As I said earlier, Tracy will reward a hot player — even if that hot player’s a journeyman.

Still, the fact that Kata’s cutting into Castillo’s playing time is discouraging. You’d think the Pirates would rather showcase the younger guy with more upside. No matter what, though, when Bautista returns from injury third base is his. I wouldn’t worry about finding a permanent spot for Kata, but I suppose he’s useful as a utility option.

5. Are Jose Castillo and Jose Bautista the same person? Their Strat-O-Matic cards sure look the same, and I don’t think I’ve seen them both in the game at the same time.

One hustles — Bautista — and one doesn’t. Castillo’s a bit flashier with the glove, but Bautista’s been solid at third. Both have the occasional power surge, but Bautista has proven to be a more valuable hitter because of his ability to draw a walk. All things considered, though, they’re relatively interchangeable. Given a choice, I’d take Bautista.

6. Speaking of Castillo, should the Mets consider him for second base? We’ve heard he’s a head case. What’s the scoop?

He’s been labeled as lazy, and I don’t think that’s entirely undeserved. At the same time, it’s hard to stay motivated when your manager gives you a start or less per week. Especially when you’re a Pirate, and the guys in front of you are by all accounts average ballplayers.

If I were an opposing GM, I’d probably take a flyer on Jose. He plays highlight-reel defense at second (and is serviceable at third and short), and can crush balls like you wouldn’t believe. You have to remember he just turned 26 and already has three years of experience as a starter. With the right coaching (and perhaps Minaya’s Latin influence), I think he could turn into — at the very least — a decent backup.

Then again, I don’t understand why no one will make a move for Jorge Cantu, either.

7. What happened to the idea of Xavier Nady at third base? Do the Bucs lack OF depth, or was Nady a bit shady at the hot corner?

In the days immediately following the Perez-Nady swap, there was talk that Nady had a little experience as a third baseman. Some of us discussed the possibility of shifting Freddy Sanchez to second and inserting Nady at the hot corner, but I don’t know that the Pirates ever considered that to be a plausible alternative. Having him split time between first and right seemed to work well, and now you’ll see him playing a mediocre center field, too.

I think the decision was made primarily due to Nady’s lack of polish at third, but the Pirates do have more capable infielders than outfielders.

8. In Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny, and Paul Maholm, the Pirates have three 25-year-old pitchers with exciting upsides. What do these three have to do, individually, to turn the corner? Tell us ignorant New Yorkers what to expect when we see them at Shea this week.

Snell needs to stop trying to win games by himself. At times, he prefers to beat batters one-on-one rather than rely on the defenders behind him. He honestly believes he can strike anyone out, but at times that approach can prove costly. He’ll try to paint the black and miss, resulting in either walks or homers.

Gorzelanny’s still learning the ropes of playing in the bigs. I wouldn’t necessarily say he needs to turn a corner. In his first 32 major-league starts (just under 200 innings), he’s 11-11 with a 3.65 ERA. If put together in one season, those numbers would merit R.O.Y. consideration. He’ll only get better.

Maholm finally figured that he needs to throw strikes — nothing more. His natural downward movement lends itself well to being an extreme ground ball pitcher. He’s improved dramatically over the past month or two. You can expect that he’ll last six innings, allow his fair share of baserunners but emerge relatively unscathed. Paul’s an unimpressive innings eater that occasionally can put together a special outing.

9. Tie game, last inning, two out, runner on third. What Bucco batter do you want at the plate?

Looks like we’re playing extras.

No, seriously, I’d probably take Nady. He won a game in our first series of the year against the Astros, and he hasn’t stopped contributing since. He’s worked out for the Pirates — about as well as Ollie has for you guys.

10. Same situation, Mets are up. What Met would you least like to see hitting?

As for the Mets: Who’s your best fastball hitter? I pick him. Matt Capps throws strike one every time. And if any other Pirate reliever is in, we probably lose.

Thanks again to Cory for sharing his thoughts on the Pittsburgh Pirates. Be sure to check out his Pirates blog, the Pittsburgh Lumber Co., and the Most Valuable Network (MVN) for commentary by other top-notch bloggers on all 30 Major League Teams.

Joe Janish began MetsToday in 2005 to provide the unique perspective of a high-level player and coach -- he earned NCAA D-1 All-American honors as a catcher and coached several players who went on to play pro ball. As a result his posts often include mechanical evaluations, scout-like analysis, and opinions that go beyond the numbers. Follow Joe's baseball tips on Twitter at @onbaseball and at the On Baseball Google Plus page.
  1. Micalpalyn July 24, 2007 at 8:36 am

    Add me to the Zach Duke club.

  2. joe July 24, 2007 at 9:45 am
    Hmmm … I smelll a deal … the Mets want Salomon Torres for middle relief, the Pirates insist on Ben Johnson in return, Mets say OK, but only if you include a “throw-in”, such as Zach Duke.

    Somehow I don’t think it would play out that way, though … but what about if they wanted Milledge? Do you trade LM for Torres and Duke?

  3. isuzudude July 24, 2007 at 9:47 am
    Somebody fill me in: what makes Zach Duke so enticing? I see a guy who had an outstanding rookie campaign in 2005, then stopped fooling people in 2006. Now he’s hurt, with an elbow injury no less, and this is the guy who replaces Glavine in next year;s rotation? I’d prefer Jorge Sosa. His numbers over the last two seasons are atrocious. Could that be blamed on pitching while hurt or because there’s a flaw in is mechanics that Rick Peterson could fix? Who knows. But to spend valuable prospects to get a guy as unproven as Duke is not my answer, especially when you can use those same prospects and get a much better player. I also stand by my opinion and say that the Mets DO NOT need another starting pitcher in 2007. Let’s make that trade or acquisition during the offseason when teams aren’t looking to bend you over the bedpost because of the urgency surrounding the trade deadline. If there’s anyone the Mets should pluck from Pittsburgh, it might be Solomon Torres. Be interesting seeing him set-up for Wagner…gives us another good arm against righties (1.05 WHIP, .224 BA vs RH batters) in case Smith continues to falter…like perez, could be looking for a change of scenery. It all depends on what the Mets would have to give up. Torres is also signed thru 2008, with an option yuear in ’09, and if he pitches effectively, it allows the Mets to deal Heilman or Smith this offseason to get help in the OF or rotation. Just a thought!
  4. isuzudude July 24, 2007 at 9:51 am
    dammit, someone always beats me to the punch. If the deal is Torres for BJ, pull the trigger. I turn down Milledge for anybody on the Pitt roster aside from Snell or Gorzelanny. But let’s also be realistic: how cooperative do you think the Pirates will be after we raped them of Oliver Perez just last season? Chances are, they’ll ask for Milledge or Pelfrey for Torres, we’ll say no, and they’ll hang up the phone.
  5. joe July 24, 2007 at 10:19 am
    Well, it’s true that Zach Duke doesn’t have the lights-out, electric stuff of, say, Ollie Perez … but he IS a 24-year-old lefty with a nasty curve who has had success in MLB in the past. And considering that the Pirates completely muffed Ollie, there’s reason to believe Duke can be fixed as well. A fixed Duke doesn’t project to be a #1 based on his stuff, but the fact he’s a youngster who’s NOT a flamethrower yet knows how to get people out suggests he might have a Glavine-like future ahead of him.

    Is that worth Milledge? Maybe not, but if Torres were also in the deal I think you have to at least consider it.

    And BTW I don’t see any teams bowling the Mets over with offers for L Millz.

  6. isuzudude July 24, 2007 at 11:21 am
    Honestly, I wouldn’t do Milledge for Duke/Torres. Milledge has already shown the knack for getting the big hit, he plays good defense, and his power numbers will only improve. If you give him 450 at-bats, which the Pirates would do, I can see him going .270, 20 HR, 75 RBI…while Duke is going to have constant elbow problems and Torres is nothing better than Jorge Julio. If teams don’t want to give you fair value for Milledge, than simply don’t trade him. With Alou and Green gone in ’08, there’s plenty of room for him in NY next year.
  7. joe July 24, 2007 at 11:50 am
    Fair enough. I imagine the Pirates wouldn’t do the deal anyway, as they seem to have Torres overvalued — for example they won’t trade him straight up for Wily Mo Pena, who may have been a disappointment is still a 25-year-old slugger with a 26-homer season in his past — exactly the type of young bat Pittsburgh needs.
  8. JIMMYJ723 July 24, 2007 at 1:31 pm
    I don’t believe in trading for “average players.” If your going to give up a top prospect, like Milledge, I expect a very good player in return. What’s Zach Duke going to do for us, that Dave Williams, Jason Vargas and Brian Lawernce can’t? We don’t need another AAA pitcher. Solomon Torres is nothing special. I’d rather have picked up Scott Williamson off waivers than trade anyone to get Torres. He lost his closer job way before he got injured.

    re: The average Mets fan (excluding the loyal diehards reading this blog, of course) might be able to name two Pirates players off the top of their head — most likely, the two former Mets Xavier Nady and Jason Bay.

    Jason Bay was a former Met ?!?!?!?! I never knew that. He’s been really bad this year (probably because he’s still affected by the off-season knee surgery) but he’s going to be a superstar for years to come. I’m going to have to do a little research on this one.

    Other than Bay… There’s former Brave Adam LaRoche, 2006 NL Batting Leader Freddy Sanchez and two really good, up and coming pitchers in Ian Snell and Tom Gorzellany. Matt Capps is a decent closer as well. Granted, they are still a really, really bad team but they’ve got some young talent.

  9. JIMMYJ723 July 24, 2007 at 1:37 pm
    New York Mets traded Bobby Jones, Jason Bay and Josh Reynolds to the San Diego Padres for Jason Middlebrook and Steve Reed.

    Wow… That Steve Phillips never seizes to amaze.

  10. joe July 24, 2007 at 1:52 pm
    To be fair, Bay wasn’t exactly a top-flight prospect at the time … kind of a Caleb Stewart or Dustin Martin.

    As for “average” players, I’m with you on Torres but not on Duke. How many 24-year-old lefthanders already have nearly 400 IP in the MLB, with twice as many Ks as walks? It’s about the future, and gambling that Duke will turn out to be a solid starter somewhere down the line — basically, the same as Jason Vargas. And the cost of a young lefty with previous success is not cheap. I’m not insisting that the Mets trade LM for him, but if they can pull a deal similar to the Bert/Perez for Nady trade of a year ago — something that could help the Mets in the short and long-term — it’s worth looking into.

    Who knows, maybe the Bucs would take on Ben Johnson and Adam Bostick for Duke and Jose Castillo.

  11. JIMMYJ723 July 24, 2007 at 2:08 pm
    Your right. If we could get Duke cheap, he’s definitely worth it. The potential is there. I just don’t think we should give up a top prospect to get him. If we could get him in a Ollier Perez type of deal, it would be a steal. Duke a fan favorite and I don’t think the Pirates will give up on him anytime soon.