The Pirates’ offense is a problem without an immediate solution

The Pirates’ offense is bad this year. That’s an understatement: they’ve got 118 runs in 41 games, which is an average of less than three runs per game. They’re on pace to score 466 runs. As a franchise, the Pirates have never scored fewer than 567 runs in a 162 game season. Even the brutally bad Pirates of the 1950s never dropped below the 500 run mark. So yes, the Pirates are really bad offensively and without Andrew McCutchen they’d be significantly worse. 

After Justin Verlander’s almost-no-hitter on Friday, there was a rousing round of “Who’s fault is the offense?” on Twitter. I was a little surprised to see that; Neal Huntington’s in his fifth year as GM. He inherited a barren system with almost no offensive talent, yes, but we’re past the point that Dave Littlefield deserves credit or blame for anything. Huntington’s trade for a lot of offensive players that were supposed to be helping by now that didn’t work out (Andy LaRoche, Lastings Milledge) or don’t look like they’re going to work out (Jose Tabata, Andrew Lambo). Some of them were longshots, sure, but that’s the path Huntington took. His high profile draft picks haven’t fared well, either, with Pedro Alvarez struggling and Tony Sanchez stuck in Double-A. 

I’m not interested in who’s fault it is, though. I’m interested in the path forward. In a lot of ways, the Pirates were committed to the path they’re on this year well before the season started: they had to play Jose Tabata, they had to play Neil Walker, they had to play Alex Presley, they had to play Pedro Alvarez. There’s lots of consternation over the signings of Barajas and Barmes, but in the National League last year, catchers had a .708 OPS and shortstops had a .688 OPS. The Pirates were never going to find external help at those positions without serious trades that they weren’t quite in position to make over the winter; they were only going to find placeholders. The placeholders haven’t been terribly effective thus far, but they’re not what I’m worried about. I’m far more concerned with Alvarez and Walker and Tabata, and I think those three not hitting is the team’s biggest concern, both presently and down the road.

The problem with fixing this offense is that it’s a very layered question. The first question is “What can be done RIGHT NOW?” which is immediately followed by, “What is WORTH DOING right now?” which is followed by, “What can we risk DOWN THE ROAD that’s worth doing right now?” and the final question, “What NEEDS to be done down the road?” When it comes to the currently assembled Pirates, the answers go something like this, “It’s May, so basically the only thing that can be done is dumpster diving and promoting from within, neither of which is likely to be helpful,” followed by, “The only reason to go out and make a big trade would be if you think the Pirates can contend this year; how much can you really count on Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett and James McDonald to be this good over the course of a full season? Because while the bottom may not fall out of this pitching staff like it did last year, I’m not sure it’s THIS GOOD over the course of a season,” followed by, “Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole are flat-out as untouchable as the surface of the sun and we’re not even listening to offers on them, which means that our most desirable tradable prospects are Starling Marte and probably Robbie Grossman, who are hitters. Which means that if the Pirates are trading prospects for offense this year, they’re talking about guys like Rudy Owens and Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson, who are fringe prospects at best and not likely to bring much of a return,” and finally, “Holy crap, the Pirates have no slam dunk offensive prospects anywhere at the moment, shouldn’t we be more worried about THAT than anything?”

The reality for the 2012 Pirates is that they can’t do anything with Alvarez, Walker, and Tabata but play them. At some point they’re going to face a decision on all three and all three are young enough and talented enough that the Pirates shouldn’t make that decision without as much data as possible. That means that upgrading the 2012 Pirates’ offense falls to first base, shortstop, catcher, and right field. There’s never much offense to be had at catcher or shotstop and the Pirates’ best course of action there may simply to be to let Barajas and Barmes play back to their career levels, and hope that gets them into the ballpark of league average at their position. There might be offense to be found at first base or right field, but I sincerely doubt that the scrap heap holds much more promise there than Garrett Jones or Casey McGehee (because both of those guys are scrap heap additions, of course) do. We can discuss replacing Jake Fox with Nate McLouth all we want, but that move will never have more than limited value. A Joel Hanrahan trade as the deadline approaches might bring some help for the Pirates at one of those positions, but they’ll have to weigh what an immediate return is worth vs. one that might be more helpful when Cole and Taillon are Pirates. 

Here’s the truth of the situation: it’s May. The only way to really change the composition of this team right now is to do something drastic. Doing something drastic right now would be predicated on the assumption that this team’s pitching staff makes them a real contender in 2012. That means assuming Erik Bedard will take the ball every five days, assuming that we’ll see the good AJ Burnett more than the bad, assuming that teams will remain as baffled by James McDonald’s slider now that they’re starting to see it more regularly. All of those things might happen, but then, Neil Walker might have a June that resembles his July 2011. Jose Tabata might find his swing. Pedro Alvarez might catch fire again. Garrett Jones or Casey McGehee might get into a groove. Starling Marte might hit his way up to the Pirates. Any one or two of those things would do more for the Pirates’ offense than any trade they could make right now. 

I’m not excusing the Pirates’ offense. Truth be told, I hate watching this team this year and on a lot of nights, I just choose not to. I’m not exempting Neal Huntington from criticism for the awful pace this offense is on. That should be considered as much as anything when the Pirates decide later this year if he’s the GM to take the Pirates into second half of this decade. But none of those things mean that the Pirates should hit the panic button on May 21st; in some ways, I think that would be the most irresponsible move of all. 

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.