About a month ago, my dad fell out of a tree. He didn’t fall very far, but he managed to hit the ladder that toppled over behind him in just the right way that he broke a couple of ribs and ruptured his spleen. After falling, he knew he was hurt and went to lay down on our deck until my mom got home to take him to the hospital. He laid on his back in serious pain, almost unable to move. Across the deck, a small radio was turned on and tuned in to that afternoon’s Pirates/Brewers game. It was Charlie Morton’s first game back and he was giving up runs while the defense kicked the ball around behind him. Ryan Doumit was catching for Morton again, despite all of the obvious problems his inability to hold runners on base had caused for Morton during his first stint with the Pirates. After a couple of minutes, my dad managed to pull himself up, walk gingerly across the deck, and turn the Pirates’ game off.
When I talked to him a few days later, he said to me, “Patrick, I don’t know if I’ve ever been in as much pain as I was laying there on that deck, but the thought of even listening to the Pirates for even another minute was unbearable.” And that’s the Pirates’ 2010 season in a nutshell (my dad is doing much better, for all that are concerned) — bad enough to be borderline unwatchable.
Really, this has been like two different seasons. Remember a million years ago when it looked like 2010 was going to be the season where we evaluated Andy LaRoche, Lastings Milledge, Jeff Clement, Garrett Jones, Ross Ohlendorf, and Charlie Morton before the young guys made their way too Pittsburgh. Remember the Diamondbacks’ 13-run inning? The 20-0 loss to the Brewers? Hayden Penn and Dana Eveland? The Pirates gave up 161 runs in 23 games in April. They weren’t just bad, they were flat out terrible. They were terrible in May, too, and by early June the Aki Iwamura experiment was over, the Jeff Clement experiment was over, and the Andy LaRoche experiment was winding down rapidly.
What the Pirates ended up doing was digging themselves a horrible hole by playing putrid baseball for two months, then throwing their best young prospects onto the field and asking them to begin their careers by digging out of the hole. Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez all found varying levels of success in 2010, but they certainly had valleys to go with their peaks and asking them to both adjust to the Major Leagues while covering for a weak supporting cast and awful pitching staff is just too much. The Pirates didn’t really find their legs with the rookies until September, when other teams were working with injuries and late-season call-ups and the likes.
Still, the Pirates were a much better club with Alvarez, Tabata, and Walker on the field. Before the All-Star break, when Iwamura, LaRoche, and Clement got big chunks of playing time and Tabata, Walker, and Alvarez were all adjusting, the Pirates scored 284 runs in 88 games. After the break they scored 303 runs in 74 games, which isn’t a huge total but it is a big improvement. These guys can’t pitch, but they did make the Pirates a much better team in the second part of the season, even if the wins didn’t come at a much quicker pace than they did before the All-Star break.
When you really boil 2010 down to it’s essence, that’s what it’s about; winning vs. progress. Can a Major League Baseball team make strides forward without wins on the field? And how exactly can you measure that progress? For now, it’s not easy. I really do think the Pirates are in a much better place right now than they were when 2010 began. We know that Andrew McCutchen’s 2009 season wasn’t a fluke. We saw Jose Tabata hold his own as an every day player at the age of 21. We saw what Pedro Alvarez is capable of when he’s locked in. Andy LaRoche flopped, but Neil Walker made some huge strides forward. The year began with question marks and maybe we don’t have all of our questions answered about Tabata, Walker, and Alvarez, but I certainly have fewer of them now than I began the year with. That’s progress.
Is it enough progress? That’s even harder to say. The young hitting is coming along, but is it enough? How in the world can the Pirates turn the ugly mismash of pitchers that took the mound this year into a real pitching staff? James McDonald helps, and so would a full, healthy season from Ross Ohlendorf and a Charlie Morton with his head screwed on right, and some progress from Brad Lincoln, but is even that enough? The Pirates were a better team in the second half of the season, but their run differential after the break was still that of a 99-loss team. Even if we consider the team the Pirates finished the season with a 99-loss team and not a 105-loss team, that’s a long way from contention.
Of course, the Pirates made a lot of progress this year in places that weren’t on the field in PNC Park. They had a good, strong draft and drafted and signed two of the best high school arms available. They finally made their Latin American splash by signing Luis Heredia. A bunch of fringe pitching prospects (Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson) had good years and made themselves into something better than just fringe prospects. Neal Huntington turned in at least two trade-deadline heists, getting James McDonald and Andrew Lambo for Octavio Dotel and John Bowker and Joe Martinez for Javier Lopez. These sorts of things have to happen for the Pirates to become something other than a doormat.
As Charlie is fond of saying, we all knew that 2010 was going to be a bad year and we’ve known it for some time. It was worse than I expected, for sure, but the worst parts of the season don’t actually make the Pirates’ long-term outlook any bleaker. Now that 2010 is over, we know the Pirates have young and talented players in Pittsburgh and we know they have talent in the minors. The questions now are whether they’re going to be enough and what has to be done to bring everything together. These aren’t easy or trivial questions in any way, but that’s where the Pirates are right now. Fortunately, the only real direction to go from a 105-loss season is up.