The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. - Wm. Blake

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wait 'Til 2011?

That’s the year that some baseball folks around here (including Rocco DeMaro, who does the postgame show on the radio, and, more notably, some in the front office) are tentatively pointing to as when the Pirates could maybe start competing. In the aftermath of the McLouth trade, my frustration was that the trade seemed to be an announcement that the Pirates had no intention of trying to compete before then*. Regardless, that’s the golden year, the one year where we will still have the best of our current pitchers (Duke, Maholm) as well as most of the coming talent. Here’s the best case lineup, if every minor leaguer progresses as he should (but assuming no miracle seasons):

G Hernandez, CF
A McCutcheon, LF
P Alvarez, 1B
R Doumit, C
J Tabata, RF
An LaRoche, 3B
S Ford, 2B
?????, SS

That’s pretty good looking, at least 1-6. However, it’s assuming a little bit that Tabata and Hernandez both make it by then; it’s assuming a lot that both will contribute as rookies; it’s assuming unrealistically that both will come north with the team, as opposed to being late May callups (the Longoria/Wieters rule of arbitration-delay should hold). With that in mind, suddenly this lineup doesn’t look much better than today’s, does it? Cutch should be better, but he’s already been so good, I don’t think you can project too much more from him (maybe some more pop). Alvarez should be fine as a rookie (and, again, I’m not convinced he’s with Pittsburgh from April, unless he breaks out big time in 2010), but I don’t know that you can really project him, in 2011, as better than Adam LaRoche today (plus his glove will be worse). Doumit is Doumit (if he’s healthy), LaRoche will maybe show a bit more pop, and that’s it. Ford will obviously be a downgrade from Sanchez, no one in the system represents an upgrade from Wilson at SS, and I don’t think it’s realistic to expect a free agent signing who would be an upgrade, either (maybe someone with more bat but less D, which I’m calling a wash on a team without strikeout pitchers). So, in 2011, the offense is about where it is now, albeit with upside.

B Lincoln
Z Duke
P Maholm
C Morton
R Ohlendorf

There’s lots of guys we can slot in 4-5, but they’re all about what you get with Morton and Ohlendorf – credible, major league pitchers, but not much more. From what Dejan has written, I don’t think they’ll be able to keep Lincoln away, so let’s assume he comes up in 2010, gets his growing pains out of the way, and is prepared to be an ace in 2011. Duke and Maholm, who knows, but let’s pretend that, unlike Gorzo and Snell (and Cordova and Benson and…), they’re for real.

It’s a credible, even good, rotation, and a semi-credible offense, plus an excellent defensive outfield. Is it a much better team than 2009? I don’t see it. I mean, there’s clearly more talent, but I think it’s extremely unrealistic to imagine that a lineup that’s 50% rookie will have no growing pains: if any of Tabata, Hernandez, or Alvarez pull an Andy LaRoche, that alone drags the team below 2009 performance. But 2011 is probably when we crack .500.

Meanwhile, in 2012 we lose Duke and Maholm. Bryan Morris and Jeff Locke, fruit of the Bay and McLouth trades respectively, could be ready by then, but will be 25 and 24. It’s hard to imagine both of them stepping in and becoming 2-3 starters. That said, all of my caveats above about the offense should be resolved by 2012. So call it a wash with 2011. 82 wins again.

Finally, we reach 2013, about as far as we can project. Feeling positive, I’ll grant that the offense is hitting on all cylinders – we’ve either drafted a stud SS or, heartened by 2 years of decent baseball, Huntington opens the checkbook for a solid FA – and Morris and Locke both pan out, staying healthy. I can finally see a team that can not only compete, but actually look like a division favorite. But there’s an awful lot to go wrong between then and now. And, more important, I’m not convinced that 2011 and 2012 look so much better than 2009’s team, a team that all the cool kids agree sucks.

When does Steelers Training Camp start in 2012, anyway?

* McCutcheon has been, not surprisingly, a great substitute for McLouth, but that ignores the gaping hole that is Brandon Moss in RF – Cutch could have come up and McLouth could have slid over, and that would have been an improvement. Meanwhile, Charlie Morton is, to date, nothing more than John van Benschoten, Jr. He may well turn out to be more, but it’s foolish to look at a guy with mixed success in the minors (he was rarely more than mediocre in A and AA ball) and one terrible stint in the majors as a significant pickup.

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