Quite simply, the Pirates are in a state of limbo. No matter who is brought in to run this team in 2008, this is an ironclad truth. Some teams are built to win now; others to win later. The Pirates are in between.
Consider that even in what has to be considered a disappointing year, the Pirates are still but 10.5 games back in a weak National League Central Division. If they were playing .500 baseball, they’d be just three wins out of first place. Try as they might, this is not a team that needs to be blown up as part of another five-year rebuilding plan—not so long as they’re playing with the Astros, Brewers, Cardinals, Cubs and Reds.
At the same time, though, the Pirates are currently sixth in a six-horse race. They’ve still lost 18 games more than they’ve won, and they’re just four defeats shy of their 15th consecutive losing season. No one will try to convince you that the Pirates are knocking on October’s door.
Many teams can toe a fine line between structured rebuilding and fielding a competitive nine. The Oakland A’s come to mind as an example: Year after year (2007 notwithstanding), Billy Beane seems to be able to churn out a playoff berth. He does it with smart trades, low-risk free agent signings and masterful negotiation of the first-year player draft. He reloads constantly so that his team is never far from contention, always doing his best to sell high and buy low.
The Pirates have a very definite window in which they’d like to compete: After 2009, Jason Bay, Adam LaRoche, Matt Morris, Xavier Nady, Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson will be eligible for free agency. And, as best as we can tell, the only promising players coming from the minor leagues to fill those probable vacancies are Andrew McCutchen, Steven Pearce and Neil Walker.
In that core of six veterans, the Pirates have developed a group of serviceable ballplayers at the very least. There is not a team in baseball that wouldn’t start Bay or Sanchez; LaRoche and Nady are proving to be a poor man’s murderer’s row; Morris and Wilson, while overpaid, are certainly players who could contribute to a championship-caliber squad. A strong foundation has been laid.
In that core of three prospects, the Pirates have begun to prepare for the future. McCutchen has the potential to be a game changing center fielder; Pearce is the most prolific minor-league bat in all of baseball to have received a September call-up; Walker, 21, had a tremendous first half at Double-A Altoona and will look to have an impressive follow-up year with Indianapolis in 2008.
But what will this off-season hold? The Pirates don’t have enough at the major-league level to stand pat, assuming that another year of development is all the club needs to make the transition from chumps to champs. And the thought of trading away stars like Bay, LaRoche and Sanchez is unimaginable. Purging this roster would be akin to committing suicide in the Pittsburgh baseball market.
The way I see it, our newly hired chief executive will need to see to it that three moves are made:
- The Pirates need to find a steady third baseman, center fielder and catcher without dealing away anything we’ll miss. It could be as simple as penciling in Nady at third or center, or signing a cost-effective veteran on the free agent market. It could be as complex as putting together a package of surplus players and making a move similar to Mike Gonzalez for Adam LaRoche. The Pirates have a number of internal candidates for jobs, but going into a season with three question marks in a lineup has proven to be an unwise decision.
- The Pirates need to begin to plan for 2010—deciding definitively which veterans they’ll try to retain and which will be leaving. It’s an unfortunate truth related to a small-budget team: The Pirates are unwillingly to afford Bay, LaRoche, Nady and Sanchez. While all four will be arbitration eligible two more times, I would make an effort to sign at least one to a three- or four-year deal in order to avoid a situation where four potential All-Stars are being shopped on July 31, 2009.
- In June’s draft, the Pirates must take the impact player who’s closest to being major-league ready. Daniel Moskos does not fall into this category. If a Matt Wieters is available when you’re picking, you have to shell out the cash necessary to sign him.
The Pirates should be leaning heavily towards winning now, with the caveat that strategically trading away star players can return younger prospects capable of contributing immediately.
In the coming seasons, build around McCutchen, Pearce, Walker and two of Bay, LaRoche, Nady and Sanchez. Keep intact a rotation featuring Gorzelanny, Maholm and Snell. Trade from your excess to fill out a core of young talent.
And no matter what, quit hiding in the gray area between winning and losing. If you refuse to tear the roster down, then make a concerted effort to build it back up and compete for a playoff spot. Please don’t settle for taking aim at a .500 season.