Monday, March 31, 2008

The 2008 Pittsburgh Pirates

Being the fan of a bad baseball team is a very strange thing. 2008 may very well be the most important season in recent memory for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and it has absolutely nothing to do with the team that will take the field night in and night out.

That Pirate team that will take the field every night will not be a pretty bad one. In 2007, the Pirates added Adam LaRoche to a 67-win team and got a 68-win team. This year, the Pirates have added even less to that 68-win team and accordingly, shouldn't expect much more of an improvement. Some may say that a portion of the roster underachieved last year, but it can just as easily be argued that a similar sized portion overachieved. That's the basic facts of baseball: those things tend to balance each other out. If you're counting on guys to reach a level beyond what's generally expected of them to win, you're not taking into consideration the guys that will drop off. Normally I'd end my season preview post with a record prediction, but in this case it's coming in the middle because record is less relevant. Let's say the Pirates will win 70 games this year. If you want a 95% confidence interval, I'd tell you 70 +/- 3. If the Pirates win less than 67 or more than 73, I'll be shocked.

Of course, on-field product isn't terribly relevant this year because the Major League team is the last thing that will benefit from an organizational overhaul. When you plant a flower, you fertilize it, water, it, give it sun, watch it grow, and the actual bloom is the culmination of your effort. Similarly, Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly have trades to make, players to scout, draft, sign, and teach, and perceptions to change before the Pirates are going to be a legitimate baseball operation. It's not an easy job and even if they do it right, it's going to be hard for the casual fan to notice it for quite some time.

So what am I watching for in 2008? On the major league level, I'm watching to see who gets traded, and for what. I fear that Huntington may have miscalculated by not trading Freddy Sanchez, Xavier Nady, and Jack Wilson this off-season. The Pirates aren't shopping Adam LaRoche, but I feel like they should be. The more I look at the comparison of Jason Bay's 2006 and 2007 swings, the more I fear that the 2007 difference is a lengthening of his swing not because he's hurt, but because he's already past his prime. Still, the players I just mentioned are important to the future of the Pirates. They are not the future of the Pirates, but how they play early on this year will help decide who it will be that makes up the team's future. It's strange to think of my favorite team like that, but that's what they are right now.

On another level, Steve Pearce and Neil Walker are certainly worth keeping an eye on. Walker has made huge strides in the last year and Pearce looks like a legitimate thumper. If they keep growing this year, anchoring those two at the corners of the infield is as good a place as any to start the foundation of an honest-to-goodness major league ballclub. Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny are 26 and 25, respectively. If Huntington can restock the cupboard without dealing them (something that will be incredibly difficult to do, in all honesty), there aren't many teams that can match them for the top of a young rotation. Beyond them, Altoona isn't worth watching right now and most of the prospects we have in any level of A-ball are pitchers. Maybe there will be a Steve Pearce this year that takes the organization by storm, but those things are always hard to figure out.

I'm sorry if you came to this site today looking for me to give you hope in the 2008 Pittsburgh Pirates. Bob Dylan once said that "hope's just a word that maybe you said and maybe you heard on some windy corner 'round a wide angle curve." If you've managed to dig your way through the internet and to my site, I'd like to think that you're looking for something a little more concrete and objective than that. I don't cheer for the Pittsburgh Pirates because I think they're going to win this year or anytime soon and I don't write this site for any other reason beyond the fact that I think that I can give objective analysis about the team while remaining a fan of them at the same time.

So why watch a team that both you and I know is going to lose this season? I cheer for the Pirates because it's what I've done my entire life. That's not to say I do it because it's a routine, but because staying faithful to the memories of watching games with my dad when I could barely walk, seeing Andy Van Slyke hit a home run in my first trip to Three Rivers, watching the 1991 highlight film and The Battling Bucs: The First 100 Years of the Pittsburgh Pirates until the tapes wore out, trying my hardest to be like Jason Kendall when I was in Little League, watching Rob Mackowiak share a special moment in his life with 30,000 people, and a million other little things that have happened since I simultaneously discovered baseball and the Pirates some 18 years ago is something that's important to me. I don't think of the Pirates as being personified in the owners or players that make up the club, but instead as a concept that represents Pittsburgh and baseball. Certainly, the people involved with this team have done nothing in the recent past to deserve my loyalty, but they're not the ones I'm rooting for.