Pittsburgh Pirates Half-Season in Review

Back in April I posted my 17 things to watch for in 2009 (besides the losing streak). With the All-Star break here, I figured now would be a good time to recap those 17 things, to see how the Pirates have come along in certain areas this season.

Here is the recap:

17. The performance of the 2008 draft class. The Pirates went all out, spending almost $10 M in the 2008 draft, including going over slot on several high impact players in the later rounds. We saw some early performance from guys like Matt Hague last year, but 2009 will be the first full season, giving us an early idea of exactly how good this draft was.

UPDATE: So far the draft class looks good. Chase D’Arnaud and Matt Hague have been doing well in Lynchburg. I’ll get to some of the big picks like Robbie Grossman, Quinton Miller, and Pedro Alvarez later.

16. Can Quinton Miller be an ace? The Pirates took Miller in the 20th round, despite a commitment from Miller to UNC. Baseball America considered Miller a top five round talent who slipped due to that commitment. The Pirates paid Miller $900,000 to steal him away from UNC. Miller’s fastball has been clocked at 95 MPH, and although he’s a long way off from the majors, he could be the ace we lack on the major league roster.

UPDATE: We haven’t seen much of Quinton Miller, but that’s understandable, as he’s only 19 years old, so no need to rush him. Miller made two starts with State College, combining to allow three runs on ten hits in seven innings, with four strikeouts and three walks. His two starts in West Virginia look much better. He’s combined for nine innings, and has allowed six runs. However, Miller hasn’t pitched that bad, with just six hits, eight strikeouts, and four walks. The book is out on whether he can be our ace of the future.

15. Robbie Grossman – Steal of the Draft? Grossman was a late first/early second round talent according to Baseball America, who slipped to the Pirates in the sixth round due to a poor senior year, and a commitment to Texas. The Pirates paid him $1 M to sign him away from his commitment to Texas. Grossman is a five tool athlete who ranks as the seventh best prospect in the top prospects consensus.

UPDATE: Robbie Grossman has been one of the biggest surprises of the 2008 draft class. He’s currently hitting .281/.377/.391 in 281 at-bats at West Virginia, with 24 stolen bases. The downside is that he has 100 strikeouts, more than one every three at-bats. Grossman looks to be well worth the $1 M investment.

14. The return of dollar dog night. Seriously, this was my favorite promotion the Pirates did, and I’m glad to see it’s back.

UPDATE: This is actually horrible, only because of those commercials with “Joe”.

13. The pitching depth. The Pirates received Ross Ohlendorf, Daniel McCutchen, and Jeff Karstens in the Xavier Nady trade. They also signed Virgil Vasquez this off-season to join other players like Tom Gorzelanny and Jimmy Barthmaier. I consider all of these guys to be 3-5 starters. The Pirates need two of these pitchers to emerge as fixtures in the rotation this season.

UPDATE: This has gone well, leading to the amazing turnaround of our pitching staff. Ohlendorf has a 4.64 ERA and a 1.29 WHIP, with ten quality starts in 18 appearances. Karstens didn’t do a horrible job as the fifth starter, with four quality starts in ten appearances. More or less what you’d expect from a fifth starter. He’s done a better job in the pen, with a 3.31 ERA since getting moved from the rotation.

Gorzelanny did some good work in the bullpen, and has looked great as a starter since returning to AAA. He will likely be up later this year, in order to avoid Super Two status. Virgil Vasquez has two quality starts in four appearances, after getting shelled today. Again, what you’d expect from a fifth starter.

Daniel McCutchen probably won’t be up this season, as he is not on the 40-Man Roster, and the Pirates have other options available in the mean time.

12. What trades will we see? I mentioned in Saturday’s preview the players we could see traded. Which trades will we see happen, and what type of return will we get for the guys traded away?

UPDATE: The trades have been a bit of a surprise. Things started with the Nate McLouth trade, which brought us Gorkys Hernandez, Jeff Locke, and Charlie Morton. Then after a hot start, the Pirates traded Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett for Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan, a classic buy low/sell high move. There have been minor trades as well, like the acquisition of Delwyn Young, and the deal that sent the struggling Eric Hinske away (only to see Hinske heat up for his new team, the Yankees).

We will likely see more trades, something I will cover in detail over the break.

11. Can the minor league guys step up? This i

s linked to #12. The Pirates have options in the minors to replace guys like Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, and Jack Wilson. These options are Steve Pearce at first, Shelby Ford at second, and Brian Bixler at short. The performance of these players could dictate which major league players are traded, and which are kept.

UPDATE: In short: No. Bixler has been a flop in the majors. Pearce can’t seem to hit a curve ball. Shelby Ford is batting below the Mendoza line. We still have no options at second base or shortstop, unless you consider Ramon Vazquez an option (which would be a huge sacrifice to the defense). Garrett Jones has recently emerged as a possible option at first base.

10. Andy LaRoche and Brandon Moss. The Pirates received LaRoche and Moss in the Jason Bay trade. An optimistic expectation would be a .280/20 HR season from Moss, and a .270/25 HR season from LaRoche. The Pirates have other options at each position, such as Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata in the outfield, and Pedro Alvarez at third. Success from LaRoche could allow the Pirates to move Alvarez to first. Moss would provide good insurance if Tabata or McCutchen don’t work out.

UPDATE: Neither Moss nor LaRoche are close to their optimistic expectations. One thing is certain: both players play exceptional defense. Andy LaRoche is the eighth best third baseman this season according to UZR, and the third best in the NL. Brandon Moss ranks in the top 20 of all major league outfielders in UZR.

Andy LaRoche is batting .269, which is close to expectations, but his four homers are a far cry from the 25 homers in the optimistic expectations. LaRoche also has a .345 OBP.

Moss has struggled some at the plate, hitting .255 with three homers on the season. His problem has mostly been inconsistent performance, combined with a horrible April. He’s batting .273 since the start of May, with three homers in 161 at-bats. Two of those homers have come this month.

Andy looks like he can be a solid major league third baseman, but Moss doesn’t look to be anything more than a fourth outfielder. Then again, people said the same thing about Nate McLouth in 2007.

9. Brad Lincoln and Bryan Morris. The Pirates are thin on pitching prospects, with Morris and Lincoln being their top options. Both were first round picks in the 2006 draft (Morris was taken by the Dodgers before coming over in the Jason Bay trade), and both had Tommy John surgery, only to return in 2008. Both have a chance to be in the rotation in 2010 with a strong 2009.

UPDATE: Brad Lincoln has looked great at AA, and is currently in AAA. Right now he’s on pace to be in the majors next year, and could be the best pitcher we’ve had since Drabek. Not to put any pressure on him…

Bryan Morris was injured to start the year, and hasn’t looked good in his six return starts. His starts haven’t been as bad as they look, with most of his troubles coming late in the games. He also hasn’t racked up some serious innings, as he’s been restricted in some starts by a low pitch count.

8. Can Ian Snell bounce back? Snell had a 3.76 ERA in 2007, only to flop in 2008 with a 5.42 ERA. Snell’s BABIP was an incredibly unlucky .338, which suggests the 2008 numbers were a fluke. I think Snell will bounce back, giving the Pirates a decent number two starter.

UPDATE: Not at all. Snell was the worst pitcher in the starting rotation, then asked for a demotion to AAA, where he’s been tearing it up. I don’t think anyone would miss him if he was traded.

7. Which Freddy Sanchez will step up? Freddy Sanchez hit for a .271 average last year, mostly due to a .226 average in the first half. Sanchez hit .346 in the second half to bring his average up. I don’t think Sanchez hits .346 this year, but anything above .300 would be good.

UPDATE: Sanchez has not only been a great hitter, batting .318 on the season with six homers, but his defense has also been great. Sanchez ranks 6th in the majors amongst qualified second basemen in UZR. He currently ranks number one in the 2009 MVP Tracker.

6. Adam LaRoche in April. LaRoche is a career .182 hitter in April, with a homer every 33 at bats. He’s got a .289 average in his career from May through the end of the year, with a homer every 19.59 at bats. Will 2009 be the year he breaks the April slump?

UPDATE: LaRoche posted a great April, with five homers and a .269/.352/.564 line. He then followed that up with a horrible May, hitting .200/.303/.347 with two homers. LaRoche has been his usual self, heating up in June, with a .290/.364/.476 line and five homers since June 1st.

5. Jose Tabata’s AA success. Jose Tabata was the Yankees top prospect this time last year, but slumped in AA, and fell out of favor, before coming over in the Nady trade. Tabata hit .348 in Altoona after the trade, and had a strong performance in Spring Training. He ranks as the third best prospect in the consensus, and could be starting in the majors in 2010 if he continues the success we’ve seen since the trade.

UPDATE: Jose Tabata went down with a hamstring injury early in the year, but returned in June and has looked good. Tabata is hitting .265/.352/.340 on the season, demonstrating some good plate patience with just 20 strikeouts in 162 at-bats. Tabata has been heating up since Pedro Alvarez joined the team, batting .282/.371/.359 in 78 at-bats since Alvarez got promoted to AA.

4. Andrew McCutchen in the majors. McCutchen will most likely be up this year. The question isn’t if he will be up, but when will he be up<

/a>? McCutchen is one of the top prospects for the Pirates, and a key part of the future. Success from him will certainly give hope to ending the consecutive losing…well, let’s move on.

UPDATE: McCutchen got the call right after the McLouth trade, and has been very impressive ever since. His speed is amazing, and he’s shown the ability to hit for a good average, with some power and speed on the bases. He’s the most exciting player the Pirates have had probably since Barry Bonds. He makes some rookie mistakes, but it looks like we finally have a legit top prospect.

3. Maholm, Doumit, and McLouth. Paul Maholm, Ryan Doumit, and Nate McLouth were the breakout players last year, and all three were rewarded with extensions this off-season. Each player needs to show that the 2008 results were no fluke. That’s especially true for Maholm, as the Pirates have seen plenty of pitchers flop after one year of success. If Maholm maintains his success, Snell bounces back, and two of the pitchers from #13 step up, the Pirates will have a decent rotation (yes, that’s a lot of “if’s”).

UPDATE: It was a lot of “ifs”, but somehow the Pirates managed a complete 180, and it’s mostly due to a guy I didn’t mention at all in the original column: Zach Duke. Maholm looked good to start the season, but has seen some struggles, with a 4.60 ERA on the season. You could cite his pairing with Jason Jaramillo on some of his struggles. You could also point out his horrible home/road splits, as Maholm has a 2.96 ERA at home, and a 5.77 ERA on the road.

Doumit has been injured most of the year, but has struggled at the plate in his limited time in the majors. Thankfully we have Jaramillo and Robinzon Diaz in the system, as they were able to fill in nicely while Doumit was out.

Nate McLouth was one of the best hitters for us while he was here, although there were concerns that his defense was falling off, which could cause him to lose value.

2. Another solid draft in 2009. The Pirates had a great draft in 2008, which will certainly help the future of the organization. That can’t be a one time thing. The 2009 draft is one of the most important things this season, especially with top prospects like Dustin Ackley, Grant Green, and Alex White potentially available at pick number four.

UPDATE: The Pirates took Tony Sanchez with the first pick, which appeared to be a reach that would make or break Huntington’s career. On day two they loaded up on hard to sign high school pitchers, which made the draft look great. The Pirates have signed a lot of their higher round picks, as most were taken with signability in mind. If they can sign guys like Zach Von Rosenberg and Billy Cain, the draft will be a huge success.

1. Pedro Alvarez. He’s been compared to Barry Bonds, and is clearly our top prospect, as well as the biggest key to our future. Alvarez could be ready for the majors this season, but I don’t see him getting the call until mid-April 2010. Our first round history is horrible since Bonds, so it would be great to see a legit star player in the system.

UPDATE: The reviews on Pedro Alvarez are mixed. He’s only batting .240/.325/.476 between Lynchburg and Altoona, with a .247 average in Lynchburg. He also has struck out a lot, with 89 strikeouts in 296 at-bats. His power has been great, with 17 homers on the season. He’s also started playing better in July, batting .286/.323/.464 with a homer in 28 at-bats.

The results aren’t encouraging based on all of the hype Alvarez had coming in to the season, but they’re not bad. I could still see him heating up in AA, and having a solid half-season at AAA next year, getting the call to the majors in June. Before the season I figured it was almost a guarantee that he’d be up in 2010. Now I still think there’s a chance, but it’s far from a guarantee.

Tomorrow I’ll go over the trade market, with all of the rumors for each player, and my thoughts for who will get traded before the July 31st deadline. Tuesday I’ll update my Top 30 Prospects list. Wednesday I’ll post my updated “17 Things” for the remainder of the season.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Jim Rosati

    Awesome Update, Tim.

    I would have to say as far as the ML club goes on a whole, it is just what I expected. Obviously, like you said with Duke and the 2 big trades, it didn't HAPPEN like I expected. But if someone were to say we would have 50 losses at the break, then I'd say that would be about right.

    Right now, the minors is where everyone should be focused on. All those guys you mentioned, fans should take a look and see how they all do every time out. They are the people who will need to succeed for this rebuilding to be a success.