Sometimes, at the end of the month when I am running out of groceries, I make cookies out of just the stuff I have at hand. You know, I'll use like a bunch of flour, one egg, a little baking powder, and then a whole bottle of vanilla because I'm running low on sugar. Even if I manage to hit upon a combination that keeps the dough together, and then I manage not to burn everything to a crisp in the oven, the results always end up tasting a little peculiar. As you can imagine. I mean, I'll eat them. You don't want to know what I'll eat come the 28th, the 29th. But even if they turn out the best leftover scrap cookies I've ever made, they're still not going to be in the same league as the store-bought oatmeal raisin delicacies my sister sent me for my birthday last month.
And that's the Pirates. They're making a team out of cheap scraps, and even in event that no one gets hurt and everyone plays out of their minds, their ceiling is low. There are worse teams in the National League. If the Pirates are weird leftover cookies, the Nationals are trying to make a meal out of ingredients that include numerous non-food items, like the "Mr. Show" episode with the peanut butter, eggs, dice, and sponge sandwich. And the Marlins are running out a bunch of things that will eventually be food, but aren't yet. Like a couple of baby chicks and a bag of seeds. OK, I think that's about as much fun as can be had with this analogy for now.
In an earlier Hastily Assembled Preview I riffed for a bit about how almost any team can optimistically look at the coming season and say that if every player who played well last year keeps it up and every player coming off a bad season recovers to their potential, they can make the playoffs. Well, there are few teams for whom that just isn't true. Pittsburgh is one of them. If Freddy Sanchez, Jason Bay, Zach Duke, Paul Maholm, and new acquisition Adam LaRoche all have magnificent years, the Pirates will still be pretty bad. They have far too many unsettled spots in their rotation, their offense is filled with power sinkholes, and while their bullpen could surprise, they'll more than likely trade two or three of the best pitchers from its back end before the season is out.
The trendy stat for Pirates spring previews is as follows: While the Bucs were 9-27 in one-run games in the first half of 2006, they went 15-4 after the break. Folks with a shaky understanding of how run distributions work are fixing in upon this as a ray of hope. Well, 9-27 in one-run games is incredibly unlucky. No doubt about it, that's not likely to happen again. But so is the 15-4 record after the break. Probably not a repeatable skill. The real stat to look at is the Pirates' overall record in one-run games, which would be 24-31. That computes to a winning percentage of .426, which is right in the neighborhood of Pittsburgh's overall winning percentage from last year of .414. Did the Pirates really develop a sudden unprecedented skill for winning the close ones late in the season last year? No, of course they didn't. They were only subject to a more rapid and immediate regression to the mean than we usually see in the course of a single season. They're still pretty bad.
Baseball Prospectus makes a more sophisticated point about Pittsburgh's futility that I think is worth repeating. BP's charge is that the organization has systematically selected nothing but low-ceiling, signability-type picks in the amateur draft the past several seasons, and for a team in the Pirates' financial situation, that amounts to waving the white flag on contention before they even get prospects into uniform. It's certainly true that even the Pirates "plus" starters, guys like Duke and Maholm, are not precisely imposing specimens. But I don't think the Pirates' reasoning is as bad as all that. They're in a situation much like the Rockies were a few seasons ago, where there's no core of homegrown talent to speak of and to even think of winning 70 games involves overspending for veteran talent. At this point, Dave Littlefield and the Pirates just need more guys who can play even a little bit. Until Pittsburgh has purged themselves of the need to carry never-weres like Xavier Nady, Tony Armas, and Shawn Chacon on their 25-man roster, they can't afford to be messing around with "tools" prospects.
The general lack of quality, particularly starting pitching quality, in the NL this year could help the Pirates to maintain the illusion of progress building off their 37-35 second half last year. Their full rotation of Duke, Maholm, Ian Snell, Armas, and Tom Gorzelanny doesn't feature a single guy who will sniff the low-4.00's in ERA, but in the NL, Arizona and their ninety-year-old #2 and #3 guys qualify as loaded. The Pirates are also unlikely to get out to such a poor start in one-run games as they did last season because their bullpen while penny-pinching has multiple useful arms. The loss of Mike Gonzalez (sent to Atlanta in the LaRoche trade) hurts a bit, but they still have Salomon Torres, Matt Capps, John Grabow, and Damaso Marte to fall back on. It will be a real testament to the mangerial acumen of Jim Tracy if he can maximize the efficiency of this group, each of whom has his strengths and his weaknesses.
While it's true that LaRoche will give Jason Bay the kind of protection he's never enjoyed before as a Pirate, I'm not a strong believer in the multiplicative power of proper lineup construction. The more important parts of the lineup are at the top and bottom where banjo hitters like Chris Duffy, Jack Wilson, and Jose Castillo lurk. They're not going to get on base enough, or hit for enough power, to score the runs the Pirates starters need to be successful. I doubt Pittsburgh fans will see a ton of improvement on the field this season, but at least they can console themselves with the knowledge their team is no longer wasting money on Jeromy Burnitz and Sean Casey.
I am penciling them down for 70 wins, but watch out if the bullpen does actually play well. Torres and Marte could be trade bait, and then where's Tracy to turn? Over/under of 71.5, 150 to 1 (and falling) to win it all.