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Know Your Enemy 2005 - Part II, A - The Pirates
by Derek Smart
There's a common thread of futility woven between the cities of Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. Neither club has had a winning record since 1992. Since then, the Pirates have gone 835-1,040 for a .445 winning percentage, while the Brewers have gone 825-1,051 for a .440 winning percentage. Both teams have either traded stars or allowed them to leave in recent years to save money - the Pirates sending Brian Giles and Jason Kendall away, while the Brewers let Jeromy Burnitz go and dealt Richie Sexson.
These similarities, though, are all rooted in the past. When looking at the future, it's a very different story. One can see the day coming when the Brewers will challenge for the NL Central title, thanks to a bevy of young, star-quality players that should be reaching maturity within a year or two of each other. Not so with the Pirates, unless you're gazing at the future through the Hubble telescope, or a crystal ball.
Futility, Pittsburgh style, may be the most infuriating variety. The last three years have seen win totals of 72, 75, and 72 respectively. Bad without being awful, never hitting bottom, yet failing to move forward. It is purgatory, like forever treading water without sinking, but never seeing the shore. This is the life of a Pirates fan in recent years, and I envy it not.
Will 2005 see progress, or will these Pirates remain unable to either sail or scuttle their ship?
Craig Wilson finally got a starter's playing time last season, something he's deserved for a couple of years now. The question that always seemed to keep him out of the lineup was that of where he should play defensively - he doesn't exactly have an area of particular comfort in the field - so the Pirates did what they should have been doing all along: they played him everywhere.
Alright, "everywhere" whiffs of hyperbole, but he did play four different positions during the year - right field, left field, first base, and catcher - so it's reasonable to expect more of the same this season. However, the addition of Matt Lawton to the outfield mix means it's fair to expect Wilson to see the majority of his time at first, where he'll share innings with the enigmatic Daryle Ward.
Wilson's been very consistent the last three seasons, hitting between .262 and .264 with OBPs between .354 and .360, with the only sizable change being an increase in his SLG from 2002 to 2003 that essentially held steady last year. A line of .260/.355/.500 would be right in line with his performance record, and that's a bat the punchless Pirates can't afford to keep out of the lineup.
When Wilson does play first, he should be taking a lot of throws from Jose Castillo at the keystone. Making the jump from AA in 2004, Castillo was generally overmatched, posting a sub-.300 OBP in his 414 plate appearances. He's still very young - he'll turn 24 in May - and there looks to be some power potential, but if he can't get his OBP into more respectable climes, he'll be more of a hindrance than help at the plate.
Those looking for hope can point to is his solid defensive work and a fine August which saw him go .347/.388/.583 in 72 at bats. Add in the general inability of competitors Bobby Hill and Freddy Sanchez to put it together to any useful degree, and the job looks to be his. The Pirates dunked him head first into the Major League fire last year, so it makes sense to give him another shot at it to see what, if anything, he learned.
Another, albeit indirect cause for hope, comes in the form of Castillo's double-play partner, Jack Wilson. Before last season, I would have said that his chances of becoming a useful offensive shortstop were slim to none - three consecutive seasons of sub-.310 OBPs will do that - but in his age 26 season, Wilson finally put up a solid campaign with the stick, hitting for a very respectable .308/.335/.459 line. To get an idea of what spurred this improvement for Wilson, take a gander at this:
It's all about the power, baby. Wilson got a little bump in 2003 from a couple more homers, but he brought it all home in 2004 by nearly doubling his doubles. Not only is that nice from a total production standpoint, but it makes his batting average, and by extension his highly average dependent OBP, look a little more stable - doubles and homers tend to be hard hit balls, and therefore less prone to the vagaries of luck. This looks more like a new performance level than a fluke, and that's excellent news for Pittsburgh.
But rather than take my word for it, why don't we ask Rowdy over at the excellent Pirates blog, Honest Wagner, what he thinks?
We think it was a new level of performance. Not many teams hand a job to a kid and let him keep it despite continued misery at the plate. So there aren't many comparables for Jack Wilson (and Jose Castillo). Both players were brought up with very raw hitting skills and told to field the ball and worry about the hitting later. They were not guys with nothing to prove in the minors and they weren't guys who were "slumping" when they were having bad weeks at the plate - they were guys who were in way over their head.
Wilson was something of a hitting prospect a long time ago. I'd guess that had he played more in the minor leagues, he'd have acquired more status as a minor-league prospect. Ditto for Castillo -- had he played in the minors last year, he'd be the Bucs #1 prospect this year. But he'll be better in 2005 and 2006 because he got to play in Pittsburgh in 2004. So with Wilson and Castillo, I think they are both coming in under the radar.
It's all fine and good to allow young players with upside struggle in The Show, but after beginning the year with 31 year-old proven mediocrity, Chris Stynes, making a frigid wasteland of the hot corner, it became clear that something needed doing for both the short and long term health of the position in Steel City. Enter Ty Wigginton, who joined the Pirates as part of the deal that sent the now spectacularly overpaid, Kris Benson, to the Mets.
The bummer thing was, bad as Stynes had been, Wigginton didn't fare much better. When a .220/.306/.344 line in 182 at bats is an upgrade, it merely serves to prove the depths from which you came. That's the bad news. The slightly better news is that Wigginton almost certainly will make substantial gains on those initial Pirate numbers.
The trouble is, when you're already head first in the cesspit, simply being turned right side up is a massive upgrade, and if you're satisfied with the mere fact of improvement, you're in danger of forgetting where you're standing. PECOTA projects him at .266/.334/.430, which is another way of saying it's reasonable to expect him to hang around his career line of .262/.324/.424, and since he'll be 27 this season, possibly do it a notch or two better.
That would be lovely if he was a very young middle infielder, but we're talking about a corner man entering his prime, and if that's the best that can be reasonably expected, then a career as a reserve makes infinitely more sense. However, other options for starters don't currently exist, so start he will. Would the Pirates rather they still had Aramis Ramirez? Of course. But they'd also need the budget to pay him, and since they don't have that, Wigginton will have to do.
And now for your enjoyment, a snippet of dialogue you're likely to hear during a trip to PNC Park this season:
"Aaaaaaaagh! Daddy! Daddy! It's a zombie! It's a zombie!"
"Ssssh! Quiet! The catcher might hear you!"
Yes, Pittsburghians, it's time to hide your children and lock up your brains - Benito Santiago's coming to town. He's been the punchline to many a "mouldering corpse" joke for years, but it's getting to the point where it's not a laughing matter anymore. He turned 40 on March 9, and if he's able to stay healthy, will likely catch his 2,000th game.
He's not likely to be a boon offensively, but he shouldn't hurt them relative to other options at catcher, and the Pirates felt it was more important to have his experience available to their young pitchers than to give a relatively low-upside young player like Humberto Cota a shot. I can't argue much with the logic there, despite my normal bias toward youth. Cota wouldn't be likely to improve much on Santiago's offensive production, and since the most valuable asset in the Pirates possession is their young arms, providing a stabilizing force behind the plate seems sensible to me.
Speaking of stable, up until last year, the answer to the question, "Who is the only Pittsburgh Pirate to ever win the Rookie of the Year Award?" had always been "Nobody." That changed after the 2004 season when Jason Bay won the first ROY honors in team history. Bay came over along with the fine young starter, Oliver Perez, in exchange for Brian Giles at the end of August, 2003, and while the Padres gave up a lot for the Pirates' star - and many would have said at the time that Pittsburgh did very well for themselves - I don't recall seeing anyone declare that San Diego was robbed.
Yet it could turn out to be the case, and not because Giles hasn't been or won't be productive. Surprisingly, after a late start returning from shoulder surgery, Bay wound up producing very similarly to Giles, sporting a .295 EQA versus Giles .298 mark. That's low for Giles, but he'll be 34 this year, so maybe that's where he's at now - very productive, but not spectacularly so - and if that's the case, the Pirates win that deal simply on the money they save between the two players, with Perez being the guy who tips it toward larceny.
True, Bay isn't likely to be a superstar, but 25 year-olds who hit .282/.358/.550 are valuable commodities, particularly when they're five years removed from being a free agent. The Bucs should be able to keep him through his peak without having to pay market prices, and that's a lovely thing for a productive corner man.
Last season among Pirates with 300 or more at bats, the highest OBP was Jason Kendall's tasty .399 mark. After that, there was a 41 point dropoff to Bay, the man in second place. The intent is not to indict Bay's season, which was very nice indeed, but rather to point up the dearth of on-base percentage on the team as a whole.
It would have been nice if the Pirates could have dealt with both their power and outmaking issues in acquiring a right fielder, but with most such players being out of their price range, they chose one problem to address - OBP. The man they got to help fix things was Matt Lawton, who may not have prototypical corner outfield power, but certainly has the ability to help his team by safely reaching first.
Yet, despite Lawton's relative utility, his acquisition is a baffling one by a team that had some nice success with inexpensive stopgaps like Reggie Sanders and Matt Stairs. Granted, there weren't a lot of good options available, but it seems that taking a flier on a minor league contract for Juan Gonzalez, or a deal for someone like Dustan Mohr who signed with Colorado for $950K, would make more sense than paying Lawton $7.25M for an upside of .280/.370/.430 in a corner.
I understand there's likely more to this than expected production - there's something to be said for a team showing a willingness to spend some cash in pursuit of success - and it's not that Lawton won't be helpful, just that the Pirates are unlikely to get their money's worth out of the transaction, and for a team that has continually shipped players out of town for being too expensive, overpaying for anyone's services is inexcusable.
Funny how the word "inexcusable" makes me think of Tike Redman. I don't like calling people useless - it's not nice and it's plain bad kharma - so I'm at a bit of a loss when it comes to writing about him. He has some speed, and while that's lovely and all, it doesn't do much good if his struggles to reach base continue - and there's no reason to doubt they won't. The issue would be mitigated if he possessed some power, but that's not on the table, and I might also be inclined to give a pass if his defense were a marvel, but it's average on a good day, and most days aren't.
The Pirates have been actively shopping for another center fielder all winter, but they've found the prices steeper than their liking. On the surface it looks like their choices are to pay through the nose for someone like Eric Byrnes, or suffer through another year of the Tikester. However, "None of the Above" is a consideration with many multiple choice questions, and in this case a version of that would mean shifting Bay to center, Craig Wilson to left, and making Daryle Ward the everyday first baseman. Not the best possible defensive alignment, but I'd be willing to bet any extra runs given up are easily outweighed by those gained with the sticks. The Pirates should give this serious consideration.
Last year this team was last in the National League in extra base hits and 12th in OBP on their way to scoring 680 runs. They lost on base ability when they traded Jason Kendall, and the acquisition of Matt Lawton to play right field may have actually reduced their power potential. This team will be lucky to get within arm's reach of 700 runs, and that's not a recipe for success.
Tomorrow: The Pirates, Part B - Starting Pitchers, Bullpen, and Bench.