WESTERN HOMES: There are teams with smaller payrolls than the Pirates, but all of them can point to something they're doing better than Pittsburgh along the player-development cycle. The Marlins might have fire sales every couple of years but they sure do their homework with scouting and get good players back. The Devil Rays have invested serious money both in signing bonuses for draft picks and international players. The Nationals had their entire organization's talent base stripped bare in the transition from Montreal to Washington and yet they still have a better product on the field than the Pirates do. As Pittsburgh faces down a major league-record sixteenth consecutive losing season, my question to you is... are the Pirates even trying to win?
RESEARCH DEPARTMENT: Either they aren't trying or they have the order of operations wrong. They seem to think that first they'll win, then they'll come up with a plan, and then they'll spend some money. That's all backwards.
WH: If you look at their roster, they have the beginnings of a decent pitching rotation on the cheap. They're going to get a lot of production from their starters for almost no money, Matt Morris notwithstanding. But once you have league-average pitching locked down at a discount, doesn't that mean you have to spend some money to make your offense better than average? Or anything better than average?
RD: The more important question isn't whether or not they're trying; by any conventional measure, they aren't. They're getting what they're paying for: a below-average but not awful team for below-average but not awful salaries. But is that on purpose, or is it a result of terrible ownership and management?
WH: It's true that they're not awful and what's weird to me is that there is a clear road map out from where they are to contention, at least in the National League; the Rockies were in a similar situation two or three years ago.
RD: It's pretty much the same as for any team that can't spend $100 million a year. Draft well, lock up your good players young, and be creative in the trade and waiver markets. And don't pay Matt Morris $27 million.
WH: If at all possible. Although it would be easy to sit here and pile on all the mistakes Pittsburgh management has made, it's important to note that regime change finally arrived last year, if belatedly. Dave Littlefield, the guy who made the Morris deal and the GM ultimately responsible for all the wishy-washy high draft picks Pittsburgh has made in the last several years, is out. What does the new guy, Neal Huntington, have to do to make this season obviously different from the last 15?
RD: Huntington should buy out Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny's arbitration periods, if he can. That would be a good use of $50 million. Also, he has to make it clear that he's not going to spend money on veterans for their own sake.
WH: So far so good, their biggest FA pickup was Byung-Hyun Kim. The franchise has to start valuing its own players the way everybody else does -- they could get stuff in trade for the likes of Jose Bautista and Jack Wilson, but not the stuff they think they should get. As for the one Pirate who's actually as good as Pittsburgh thinks he is -- would the Pirates get better faster if they traded Jason Bay? Or should they continue trying to keep him?
RD: Bay is signed for this season and next for $13 million total. He has to have some trade value, and I don't see how he makes them any better in the long run. But he was terrible last year. They have to give him a chance to improve before they can get anything for him.
WH: For an organization so sapped of talent at all levels, any player movement is good player movement. They should be hyperactive with waiver claims, in the Rule 5 draft, minor league trades. You look at their depth chart right now and they've got scads of young players with old bench players' skills.
RD: They aren't even in a situation like Detroit was a few years ago with several young players who might all get better. In that case reaching for a veteran like Pudge Rodriguez wasn't a complete waste of money. But the Pirates don't have anyone good enough to try to keep around in case they magically improve. Wilson and Bay are okay as starters, but neither is a cornerstone of anything but mediocrity.
WH: Or Freddy Sanchez, he's a useful player on the right team as well. But one of the Pirates' biggest problems is that it doesn't take all that much for one of their own guys to impress them. A guy like Sanchez or Ronny Paulino has one good season and then is guaranteed to keep starting for three or four more years even if they're awful.
RD: Unless they give them way more money than they deserve, it doesn't matter. It's not like they're blocking great prospects.
WH: No, but if they were more aggressive about having open competitions each spring they might be able to get lucky somewhere. As opposed to having a new master plan each offseason -- "Last year our #2 hitters were bad, so if we fix that, everything will fall into place," or "We need a first baseman and everything will be fine," or "We're going to win with speed and defense" -- they need to have the attitude that they need to get better everywhere.
RD: Even in the rotation, no one should be a stone-cold lock. You'd think that a team that has been losing for as long as they have would realize that it's going to take more than one or two moves to turn things around. I don't have this year's edition, but looking at last year's Baseball America Prospect Handbook, the Pirates were ranked 19th in '07, and were below-average every year except for one going back, and never in the top 10. They have to start at the bottom and work up.
WH: I do have this year's Prospect Handbook (thanks, Mom) and Pittsburgh comes in at 26th. That's what happens when your #1 draft priority is signability year in and year out. Man, it's going to look really bad for the Pirates when and if the Devil Rays start winning... the four expansion teams all didn't exist the last time the Pirates were in the playoffs.
RD: They have to realize that spending $10 million in draft bonuses is going to get them far more value than one year of Matt Morris. But with the exception of maybe extending a few young pitchers, there's not much they can really do until June.
WH: Well, again, that Morris deal was Littlefield's big farewell. We have to give the new team at least a little time to operate before we conclude that it's still going to be business as usual for the Pittsburgh Pirates. But let's wrap it up. As far as the product on the field goes, at the very least I think that they're better than Houston. The Pirates' bullpen, like their rotation, is better than most people think. But their offense is simply horrible. Before I looked up the over/under I was going to say 71 wins for them, and the over/under is... boom! 70.5. What say you?
RD: I think I'll take the under, but not by much. I'll go with 68, the same number as last year.
WH: Do you think they're a 68-win team as presently constructed, or do you think that they'll unload a bunch of guys at the deadline and get worse?
RD: I'm not sure if it's even possible for them to unload a bunch of guys and get worse. The difference between the current version and the fire-sale version is only a couple of wins. But I'll go with 68 either way.
WH: I hear you. Their offense is replacement-level as it is, and they're not going to deal any of the young arms.