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No Bang for The Bucs
LAST NOVEMBER, days after he was tapped as Pittsburgh's fourth pitching coach in five years, Joe Kerrigan visited the Steel City—not to check out real estate, but to get to the bottom of why the Pirates had the worst pitching staff in the National League. Kerrigan, known around the game as the Professor, hunkered down in a dark video room at PNC Park and, after 10 days of studying video of his new staff, declared to manager John Russell, "There's nothing we need to tear down and rebuild. A few tweaks, and we'll turn things around."
With those words Kerrigan comes across as the Nutty Professor, considering the rotation he inherits is, on paper, a mess even TARP couldn't bail out. The Pirates—whose starters ranked last in the league in ERA, base runners allowed and strikeouts in 2008—made no upgrades to a rotation whose presumptive ace, Paul Maholm, had 20 quality starts and a 3.71 ERA but would be a No. 3 or 4 starter on most teams. Referring to the homegrown Maholm, Ian Snell and Tom Gorzelanny, general manager Neal Huntington points out, "We have three guys who have gone 200 innings with a sub-four ERA in the last two years. The foundation is there."
That statement is not untrue, though it represents some selective interpretation of the numbers. While all three pitchers are entering their peak years, Gorzelanny, 26, and Snell, 27, took major steps back last season from their 2006 and '07 performances, Gorzelanny so much so that he will start the season in the minors. "We need to step up now," Maholm, 26, acknowledges, "or else accept that it just wasn't meant to be."
Kerrigan is a stats-and-video freak who, during 12 years as pitching coach for the Expos, Red Sox and Phillies, earned his nickname for his preparation and obsession with detail. He believes three factors have led to the staff's troubles: an unwillingness to challenge hitters inside, an inability to throw first-pitch strikes and a reluctance to make in-game adjustments. This spring he held daily drills in which dummy hitters were placed at the plate and pitchers worked on throwing inside. He handed out stat sheets that showed his pitchers how much worse they fared the second and third times through the order. "He hasn't made any big mechanical adjustments," says Maholm, "just a big focus on situational pitching and preparation."
Aside from a little miracle work from Kerrigan, the Pirates will also need big seasons from the brothers LaRoche, who are under pressure to produce out of the gate. First baseman Adam, a notoriously slow starter, had another dismal first half (.210 batting average, .348 slugging through June 6) before an All-Star--caliber second half (.316/.613 over the final 78 games). The burden is on Adam to provide punch for an offense that ranked 21st in the majors in homers and 22nd in slugging.
His younger brother, third baseman Andy, was a major disappointment after arriving from L.A. as a prize prospect in the three-team July trade that sent All-Star outfielder Jason Bay from Pittsburgh to Boston. Once regarded as the Dodgers' top minor league position player, the 25-year-old Andy hit .152 with three home runs and 12 RBIs in 49 games with Pittsburgh and was symbolic of the team's offensive futility down the stretch. After averaging just under five runs per game with Bay, the Pirates scored 3.74 per game without him, going 17--37. This winter the younger LaRoche worked with hitting coach Don Long. "We looked at a lot of video," says Long, "but mostly I wanted Andy to clear his head."
There is help on the way for the offense, though its full potential will not be realized for several more seasons. This spring the No. 2 pick in the 2008 draft, 22-year-old third baseman Pedro Alvarez, was drawing comparisons to former Pirates slugger Willie Stargell, though his conditioning was questioned. Five-tool centerfielder Andrew McCutchen, 22, will start the season at Triple A Indianapolis but should be a regular by midsummer. There are no such reinforcements coming for the pitching staff. It's all up to the Professor.
CONSIDER THIS A Modest Proposal ...
As they did with shortstop Jack Wilson last May and second baseman Freddy Sanchez in February '08, the Pirates made a big commitment to a middling player coming off a career year by signing centerfielder Nate McLouth (left) to a three-year, $15.75 million contract. Pittsburgh has no chance to contend in the span of that deal, so instead of locking up McLouth, they should be leveraging his great 2008 start (he had a monster first month, but went .261/.340/.461 thereafter) and Gold Glove award into players who will be part of the next contending Pirates team. They desperately need arms to stock a depleted farm system after years of bad drafting. The Braves are loaded with young pitchers, are ready to win now and weak in the outfield. As much as the Pirates like McLouth, his greatest possible contribution to the current club is in his trade value.