Baseball Toaster Bad Altitude
Buc Wild
2005-07-21 17:06
by Mark T.R. Donohue

After a four-game sweep at home at the hands of the hot Astros, the Pittsburgh Pirates are 40-55, tied for last place in the National League Central. The Rockies stand at 33-60. Would you trade organizations with them for those extra seven wins? I don't think so. On the most basic level, the competition in Colorado's division is far less scary. The Cardinals are a juggernaught, the Cubs have all that young pitching and ownership newly interested in the benefits of contention, and Milwaukee is very quietly assembling an extremely competitive young team. The Astros at the very least have a clutch of starting pitchers who give them a chance to win every time out. Cincinnati...Cincinnati is really bad.

A poor showing by the Reds in an earlier series against the Rockies may have been the final straw in the firing of manager Dave Miley. If the whispering winds can be held to speak the truth, Colorado could do their part in finishing off longtime Pittsburgh skipper Lloyd McClendon this weekend. It's not McClendon's fault that the Pirates are bad, no more than it was Miley's that Eric Milton became the Amazing Human Whiplash Dummy this season. The Pirates haven't been good since before the Rockies were in existence, ever since they made the famous decision that Andy Van Slyke was more worth building around than Barry Bonds.

And yet Baseball America ranks Pittsburgh's minor league system 18th of 30 despite their having high first-round picks for more than a decade. They don't have a single guy on Baseball Prospectus's list of the top 50 prospects this year (tonight's starter, Zach Duke, was an honorable mention). The Rockies have two and an H.M. The Braves, who have been pretty good at the major league level, have three including the top guy, Andy Marte. The A's have four and two H.M.'s, although you could argue that happens to be a product of their leadership and the guys who write BP using similar evaluation techniques. Or it could just as well be that Billy Beane figured out who to trade Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder for by flipping through last year's Prospectus. One of their honorable mentions, Omar Quintanilla, belongs to Colorado now.

Jeff Francis (#11) and Garrett Atkins (H.M.) are already paying dividends for the Rockies at the major league level. (The third guy is Ian Stewart at #6.) The Pirates' organization on the other hand is full of low-ceiling guys and busts. It doesn't help that two of their established guys whom they thought were going to be affordable stars this year, Jack Wilson and Oliver Perez, have cratered. Jason Bay (.911 OPS) was a deserving All-Star, and lefty reliever Mike Gonzalez (9.3 K/9) is one of my favorite inexplicably unknown great players.

(Hey, I digress, but after Bobby Abreu's performance at the Home Run Derby, who is now the unofficial official Most Underrated Player in the game? Isn't this one of those weird titles like golf's Best Player Never to Win a Major that doesn't come with a trophy or a t-shirt or an official declaration or anything, yet everyone agrees that it belongs to just one guy? My vote goes to Miguel Cabrera.)

Back to the Pirates. After the guys I mentioned, Pittsburgh has a lot of regulars who are not bad players but will never be the centerpieces of a contending team. Craig Wilson, Rob Mackowiak, Daryle Ward -- these guys belong in the major leagues, but they're all complementary players, six or seven hitters. Matt Lawton is having a good year in the leadoff position but there's no one to hit on either side of Bay. The Pirates are getting a .277 OBP out of the two hole. Bay could walk 100 times this year, which is good for Canada but bad for Pittsburgh.

You find the same sort of reduced expectations in the pitching staff. There's nothing individually objectionable about Josh Fogg, Kip Wells, or Mark Redman, it's just none of these guys would be any higher than a fourth man in a good rotation. The bullpen is full of vaguely familiar names like Salomon Torres, John Grabow, and Brian Meadows. Their closer is Jose Mesa. If you make a list of all of the guys in the majors whom you consider to be "proven closers," Mesa will be on it, but he'll be the last guy. The Pirates have a bad case of too much of an okay thing, and if they continue trading their old OK players for younger OK players, they're going to tread water for all eternity. They need a housecleaning far more than the Rockies do.

Wow, that was a lot to write about a matchup between two last-place teams. Pitching matchups: Duke-Francis, Wells-Wright, Dave Williams-Kim, Redman-Chacon. Yeah, I've never heard of Dave Williams either. Wonder what his story is. I can tell you he's left-handed.

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