Spring Postcard: Pirates still rebuilding, but they have a plan
Pittsburgh Pirates are trying to avoid their 18th consecutive losing season
GM Neal Huntington says the days of massive player departures are over
Pittsburgh wants 23-yar-old outfielder Andrew McCutchen to run more
This spring, SI.com writers are filing postcards from all 30 major league camps. To read all the postcards, click here.
1. The front office has a plan
No, the Pirates aren't going to contend in 2010 (or probably 2011, for that matter) but that doesn't mean the directionless days of years past are continuing. "A lot of fans would like us to get to 82 wins, but that's not our goal, says Pirates GM Neal Huntington. "Our goal is to build a club that is a contender every year, and for us to do that, we had to acquire as much young talent as we could."
Last June and July alone, Huntington made seven trades, jettisoning, among others, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche, and Nate McLouth. "The mass exodus of players leaving here is over," says Huntington.
And so the Pirates are moving ahead this season with the core of Andrew McCutchen, Andy LaRoche, and top prospects Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Tony Sanchez and Brad Lincoln. The demolition is over, and now begins the development: the Pirates spent more money than any team in baseball on last year's draft, and they've been as aggressive in their international scouting ($5 million alone on a new academy in the Dominican). "They're a season or two away," says an NL Central GM, "but I like the core of young players they've got now. They're on the right track."
2. The Pirates are going to run. A lot
Is there a faster player in baseball than 23-year-old Andrew McCutchen? "Carl Crawford, probably," Huntington says. "But that may be it." After his June 4 callup, McCutchen shined with his bat at the plate -- he hit .286 with a .365 OBP and 12 home runs in 493 plate appearances -- as well as defensively, where he was a well above average outfielder. The Pittsburgh media is already asking why the Pirates haven't inked McCutchen to a long-term deal. Expect them to do so if McCutchen has a big sophomore year. McCutchen has emerging power and the skills to be an elite fielder, but in the short term the Pirates want him to a difference-maker on the bases. "The coaches are stressing that to me," says McCutchen, who swiped 22 bags last year. "This year, I'm pretty much going to keep running until someone tells me to stop." In other words, a 50-steal season isn't out of the question. New second baseman Aki Iwamura is also expected use his speed hitting behind McCutchen in the order. "We want them to put pressure on the pitchers," says Huntington. "We need to manufacture more runs to be successful."
3. The education continues for the Pirates pitching staff
Two years ago the Pirates allowed a league-worst 884 runs. Last year, in Pirates pitching coach Joe Kerrigan's first year, Pittsburgh ranked 14th in the league in ERA but the club allowed 116 fewer runs. "We'll keep getting better," says Kerrigan. "The guys have a better handle on the system now." Kerrigan brought back the red and blue dummies he introduced to Pirates camp a year ago to get his pitchers to attack the inside part of the strike zone. This year, the pitching coach known as the Professor added a pink string that stretched across the bullpen, a few inches above the home plates. The purpose? "He's stressing to us the importance of keeping the ball down," says Zach Duke. "It's a focus point for us, a guide." The Pirates are expecting improvement from their top three starters, Duke, Paul Maholm, and Ross Ohlendorf. Kerrigan is being extra careful with Duke, who followed an All-Star first half with a disastrous second half (3-8, 5.17 ERA), a collapse that Kerrigan says may have been the result of the left-hander being overworked.
Remember him? Top catching prospect with the Mariners, former All-American at USC. Only three years ago Baseball America rated him the best power hitter in the Mariners minor league system. Clement was the key player in the package the Pirates received from Seattle in return for Jack Wilson. Now the Pirates are trying him out at first base, hoping that he can make the move and be their Opening Day first baseman. The Pirates desperately need pop -- Garrett Jones led the team with 21 home runs last year -- and Clement showed good power in 2009, hitting 21 home runs and 35 doubles at two Triple-A stops. Clement is on board with the switch. "Not for a minute have I thought about catching since they told me about moving to first,'' says Clement. "I haven't given up on catching altogether, but right now it's all about first base."
Prospect To Watch
Taped above Sanchez's spring training locker is a card autographed by Pirates catcher Ryan Doumit. "Some day, kid," it reads. That day is quickly coming. The Pirates were criticized when they took the catcher from Boston College fourth overall in the 2009 draft, but the 21-year-old Miami native is now making them look very smart. In his first game behind the plate earlier this month, Sanchez gunned down the first runner trying to steal on him in the first inning, then bludgeoned a 415-foot home run in his first at bat. Sanchez is already better behind the plate than Doumit. "He's the real deal," says a scout. "Great hands and a big arm."
There's been a lot of talk about a defensive revolution in baseball ... but don't count the Pirates as part of the revolution. For some of last year the Pirates were a good defensive team, but as Huntington says, they "took a couple steps backwards defensively" when Wilson and Sanchez were traded last summer, and the front office made no moves this winter to improve team fielding. Clement's glove at first will also be a big liability. "We're aware that this may not be as good a fielding team," says Huntington. "But we think an improvement in our run production is going to offset what may be a weaker defense."
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