Could the Pirates contend in 2010?

There’s been a lot of buzz about the performances of Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutchen, and Pedro Alvarez in camp this spring. That’s certainly deserved; the Pirates haven’t had three prospects as exciting as McCutchen, Alvarez, and Tabata at the same time in a long while. Given Tabata’s age and the fact that Alvarez hasn’t even played a minor league game yet, there’s plenty to be excited about. Still, the question I get more than any other is “When will the Pirates be good again?” Barring a miracle, it’s not going to be 2009. But have we seen enough this spring to think that it might be 2010?

The short answer is “no” with the caveat that a lot can happen in a year, especially with minor leaguers. The Pirates’ system is still not terribly deep and besides the big three that we’ve been seeing this spring, there’s not a lot of talent at the upper level of the minors. Most of the other interesting draft picks in 2008 were interesting because they were high schoolers that the Pirates managed to convince to sign instead of go to college. Guys like Grossman, Miller, and Freeman are miles away from Pittsburgh right now. This lack of depth creates an immediate problem. The Pirates are going to lose three starting infielders after 2009 and they really have no immdiately obvious replacements. Freddy Sanchez, Jack Wilson, and Adam LaRoche aren’t All-Stars, but they’re solid Major Leaguers that could be replaced by replacement level production next year and that’s no good for 2010’s outlook. This is, I think, the most conservative guess for next year’s Opening Day lineup.

  1. Andrew McCutchen, CF
  2. Nate McLouth, LF
  3. Ryan Doumit, C
  4. Brandon Moss, RF
  5. Andy LaRoche, 3B
  6. Steve Pearce, 1B
  7. Shelby Ford, 2B
  8. Brian Bixler, SS

I know, Tabata and Alvarez aren’t there. For Alvarez, look at the way the Orioles are handling Wieters or the way the Rays handled Longoria. Wieters played in high-A ball last year and got promoted to AA, where he stayed despite dominating. This year, he’s ready for the big leagues but the Orioles aren’t ready to contend and he’ll start the year in AAA to keep his arbitration clock down, which is something the Rays did with Longoria even though they were ready to contend. Tabata, I mean, he’s only going to be 21. I do expect progress from him this year, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be a ready-made right-fielder on Opening Day 2010. I saw him against David Price last night. There’s going to be a learning curve. That doesn’t mean I’m not excited about him as a prospect, because I am, just that there’s no reason to rush him along.

And then, we haven’t even talked about pitching. The rotation has its holes this year and with Lincoln and Morris not starting above AA, I don’t expect much immediate help from the minors. When you consider that really, TINSTAAPP, well, I don’t see a lot of signs that the pitching will be great in 2010.

Of course, a lot can happen in a year. We’ve got the fourth pick in the draft. We could, say, pick Dustin Ackley (currently at UNC and hitting over .400 for the third straight season) and have him immediately sign and fly through the system, trade Nate McLouth for pitching, sign a free agent shortstop and a starter in the depressed market over the winter, get vaguely useful returns for Adam LaRoche, Wilson, and Sanchez (not likely given their contracts and value, but hey) and have Alvarez, Tabata, and McCutchen all make huge splashes at young ages and immediately turn into very productive big leaguers. Throw that together with Andy LaRoche having a breakout year in 2009 while Ian Snell, Paul Maholm, and Ross Ohlendorf becoming above average starters, sprinkle some fairy dust and voila! Contention in 2010!

Have you caught your breath yet? Because that’s a lot of things that have to go right between now and St. Patty’s Day of next year to make the Pirates a legitimate threat to anything next year. Please don’t misunderstand my point, either. Like I said yesterday, I do think the three guys the Pirates have had in camp this year have a bright future and I do think that Huntington and Coonelly finally have the ship moving in the right direction. I’m just not sure that 2010 is a realistic date for a contending team or even a winning season because of the depth problems in the organization right now that exist as remnants of the Littlefield era.

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.