By Marshall Bradway
The truth is that the Pittsburgh Pirates haven't won over 80 games since 1992 and have not taken a stand to try to change that.
Despite new management and a change of focus to winning more, it's very difficult to succeed in Major League Baseball with a limited payroll. In 2007, the Pirates had a payroll of approximately $38 million, ranking them 27th in the league. Some teams in recent years have found ways of succeeding without spending like the Cleveland Indians, Minnesota Twins, and who could forget about the philosophy of "Moneyball" started by Billy Beane?s Oakland A's.
However, each of those teams has succeeded with a primary focus on maintaining a strong farm system. That is something that the 68-win Pirates of 2007, do not currently possess. Kevin Goldstein of Baseball Prospectus rated the Pittsburgh Pirates as having the 25th best farm system in baseball prior to last season. That ranking could have even fallen lower just days after the rankings came out when the Pirates traded away their #3 prospect shortstop Brent Lillibridge to acquire first baseman Adam LaRoche.
That trade, the biggest deal made by the team in the last five years, may go down as an unsuccessful attempt at trying to better the team over the short-term. LaRoche, coming off a career year in 2006 with the Atlanta Braves, saw his numbers decrease in batting average, home runs, RBI's, runs, total bases, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage in first season with Pittsburgh. To get LaRoche, the Pirates gave up an important arm in relief pitcher Mike Gonzalez, who is still a 29 years old, and Lillibridge who ended up batting .282 with 13 home runs and 58 RBI's playing between AA and AAA in the Braves' system.
Unfortunately, this off-season won't go down as the Pirates? best either. Up until this point, the team's biggest offseason moves include trading away another workhorse relief pitcher in Solomon Torres and releasing versatile infielder Jose Castillo.
In 2006, the Pirates paid out $15.5 million, or 40% of their payroll, to veteran pitcher Matt Morris and shortstop Jack Wilson. Morris tallied a 10-11 record in 32 starts while finishing with an ERA of 4.88, and Wilson batted .296 with 12 home runs and 56 RBI's. While both players provide veteran leadership to a team lacking it, taking 40% of your payroll to pay for a pitcher who is past his prime and a shortstop deemed untradeable because his production doesn't correlate with his big contract, isn't going to help fix the problem.
One could see this as a positive with younger players like Jason Bay and Ian Snell really producing for the relatively small amount they make; however, neither has had the major league experience to become arbitration-eligible, meaning there are big raises in the future. Perhaps the answer to the problem is as simple as re-investing some of the money that veteran players are making when their contracts expire.
Not everything is bleak for the Pirates as they do have some of the best young talent in baseball, particularly in pitching. Snell and Tom Gorzelanny, who are 26 and 25 years old respectively, combined for 23 wins and an ERA of 3.82 as the number one and two starters for the club. Also, Matt Capps took over as the team?s closer halfway through the season and filled in nicely. Capps, 24, converted 18 of 21 save opportunities while finishing with 4 wins and a 2.28 ERA. The team still has Zach Duke, 24, who struggled mightily in 2007 after a decent 2006 season that followed his amazing 2005 call-up in which he had 8 wins and a 1.81 ERA in 14 starts. Rounding out the rotation is 24-year-old Pat Maholm, who has averaged 9 wins over the last two seasons.
The truth is, with all the problems in the organization the people of Pittsburgh and western Pennsylvania have all but given up on the team. The Pirates have finished in the bottom three in the National League in attendance every year since 2002. When a franchise doesn't win and isn't willing to spend big dollars to acquire talent, it becomes difficult to maintain a winning record or even a fan base.
The Pirates have a few pieces in place to turn the franchise around with their young pitching; however, management needs to open up their collective wallet or re-invest in their farm system to make the team successful once again. The team has the opportunity for a bright future but needs to act now while other teams in the division, like the Houston Astros and St. Louis Cardinals, are struggling to find pitching.
I predict another tough year for the Pirates, but this team has the potential to do damage in a few years if they find a way to upgrade their position players.