Pittsburgh Pirates Season in Review

At the start of the season I posted my 17 things to watch for in 2009 (besides the losing streak). Around the All-Star break I did a mid-season update, and with the season now over, I figured I would go back and see how everything turned out 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: I recapped the performances of the 2008 draft class in this post. Pedro Alvarez got off to a slow start, but after being promoted to Altoona showed why he was the top prospect in the 2008 draft. Chase d’Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, Justin Wilson, and Matt Hague helped to lead the Lynchburg Hillcats to a Carolina League title in their first full season. As for two of the high profile guys from the draft…

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: Quinton Miller had a good opening season, all things considered. After a brief stay in State College he moved up to West Virginia, which might have been aggressive for a pitcher out of high school. Miller posted a 4.47 ERA and a 40:25 K/BB ratio in 56.1 innings pitched with West Virginia, although he showed signs of adjusting to the level in the final month of the season. Miller put up a 3.29 ERA and a 20:12 K/BB ratio in 27.1 innings pitched in August and September. Remember, he would have been a freshman at UNC had the Pirates not signed him, so consider that when considering his development process.

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 showed some promise, but like Miller, he didn’t really light up the minors in his first professional season. Grossman played the entire season in West Virginia, and finished with a .264/.371/.353 line in 451 at-bats, with five homers, and 35 stolen bases. The big problem with Grossman was his strikeout rate, which averaged 36 percent over the season. Grossman made up for that with a solid walk ratio, averaging 14 percent over the entire season. In the future, Grossman needs to hit for more power, and cut down on the strikeouts, although like Miller, Grossman would normally be a freshman in college had the Pirates not signed him, so I’m willing to give him a few years to develop his skills.

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: Give credit to the Pirates’ marketing department. The team was considerably worse this year, traded a ton of players, yet only managed about a two percent decrease in attendance.

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: Ross Ohlendorf really stepped up this season, almost making the Nady trade worthwhile on his own. After my mid-season update, Ohlendorf made 11 starts, with a 2.83 ERA and a 49:23 K/BB ratio in 70 innings pitched. Eight of his eleven final starts were quality starts, with Ohlendorf finishing the season with a 3.92 ERA.

I didn’t mention Zach Duke in the original post, mostly because I had written Duke off, like a lot of other people after three poor seasons in a row. Duke really surprised, with a 4.06 ERA on the season, and incredible control, with just 49 walks in 213 innings pitched.

Daniel McCutchen was the other player who made an impact in the rotation, getting six starts at the end of the season, in which he posted a 4.21 ERA and a 19:11 K/BB ratio in 36.1 innings pitched. That follows up an impressive season at AAA. Ohlendorf, Duke, and McCutchen could make up 3/5ths of the rotation next year.

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: First there was the Nate McLouth trade, which brought us Gorkys Hernandez, Jeff Locke, and Charlie Morton. Then the Pirates traded Nyjer Morgan and Sean Burnett for Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan, which has looked good for the Pirates.

In July the Pirates made quite a few trades, starting it off by dealing Adam LaRoche to the Red Sox for Hunter Strickland and Argenis Diaz. They traded Jack Wilson and Ian Snell to Seattle, receiving Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno, Aaron Pribanic, Brett Lorin, and Nathan Adcock in return. They sent Freddy Sanchez to San Francisco, swapping the second baseman for top prospect Tim Alderson. They capped it off by dealing Tom Gorzelanny and John Grabow to the Chicago Cubs for Kevin Hart, Jose Ascanio, and Josh Harrison.

There were 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).

I’ll be breaking down all of the trades individually in the coming weeks.

11. Can the minor league guys step up? This is 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: All three of these guys failed to step up, although the Pirates aren’t without options at each position. Garrett Jones is an option at first base, with Jeff Clement also a potential replacement. Ronny Cedeno looked sharp at shortstop, and could fill in nicely for Jack Wilson. Second base is the big question mark, as Delwyn Young is learning the position, and isn’t exactly lighting the world on fire with his performance.

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: Andy LaRoche did just enough to earn another chance at the third base job next year. He put up a .258/.330/.401 line in 524 at-bats, with 12 homers. Eight of those homers came in the final two months of the season, which is a pace of 24 homers in a season. He also hit for a .313/.359/.532 line in September/October. He also finished tenth amongst major league third baseman in defense, according to UZR, and was fifth amongst NL third baseman.

Brandon Moss hit for a .236/.304/.364 line, with seven homers in 385 at-bats. As a result he’s been moved to bench duty next season.

Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata are in the wings at AAA, with both players possibly ready for the majors by June 2010, although that’s an optimistic approach for Tabata. Alvarez could replace LaRoche if he fails to repeat his September success next season. As for Moss, he would have to do a lot to reclaim the starting role in right field.

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 had a great season, dominating AA ball, then moving up for a taste of AAA. Lincoln will start next season at AAA, and could be up by June 2010, especially if he repeats the success we saw from him in Altoona.

Bryan Morris struggled this season, as he worked on changing his mechanics in order to take stress off of his arm. Morris had some of his best starts at the end of the season, including a great outing in the playoffs to send Lynchburg to the Carolina League finals. After nearly half a season working on his new pitching methods, it will be interesting to see how Morris does next season.

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: Snell struggled, asked for a demotion, tore up AAA hitting in his time in Indianapolis, and was traded to Seattle. His walk rate continues to be high in Seattle, something that plagued him in his last two seasons here.

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 stepped up, with a .296 average and some great work on defense while he was here. That was enough to convinc

e the Giants to part with their number two pitching prospect, Tim Alderson, in the July trade for Sanchez.

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 did well in April, but struggled in May and June, finishing with a .247/.329/.441 line, including 12 homers in 324 at-bats before being sent to the Red Sox. LaRoche ended up in Atlanta, where he hit for a .325/.401/.557 line in August and September, with 12 homers in 212 at-bats. Same old LaRoche.

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 looked good in AA, hitting for a .303/.372/.404 line in 228 at-bats. He was promoted to AAA in August, where he hit for a .276/.333/.410 line in 134 at-bats, with three homers. The big thing that Tabata needs to do is develop power. That’s usually the last thing to arrive for a prospect, and when it arrives for Tabata, we should have a star player on our hands.

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? 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 was exactly as advertised. McCutchen hit for a .286/365/.471 line in 433 at-bats, with 12 homers and 22 stolen bases in his rookie season. His performance, and timely hitting, was enough to win the BUCCO Fans.com 2009 MVP Award, according to the results of the FanGraphs WPA numbers.

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: Maholm finished the season with a 4.44 ERA, largely due to his performance on the road. Maholm posted a 3.50 ERA at home in 105.1 innings pitched, but had a 5.54 ERA in 89.1 innings pitched on the road. This has been a trend for Maholm to pitch much better at home in every single season, with the lone exception being his breakout 2008 season. Going in to the 2009 season it will be interesting to see whether Maholm returns to his 2008 road success, or if he continues this trend of struggling on the road.

The Pirates might have sold McLouth at the right time. Last year he hit for a .276 average, although that was mostly due to a .312 average in the first two months of the season. McLouth hit for a .257 average in the final four months of the season in 2008. In the first two months of the 2009 season he hit for a .256 average with the Pirates, before being traded to Atlanta. With Atlanta he hit for a .257 average. McLouth also may have been overhyped on the defensive side of the ball, with many questioning his 2008 Gold Glove award. He has good power numbers, but there’s a big difference in value between a .276 hitter and a .257 hitter, with McLouth looking more like the latter. I don’t think the Pirates get as good of a return if they traded him after the season.

Ryan Doumit struggled most of the 2009 season at the plate, and suffered a few injuries on top of that. Doumit ended up with a .250/.299/.414 line, with ten homers in 280 at-bats. Doumit did finish the season on a strong note, batting for a .329/.406/.459 line in September/October, with two homers in 85 at-bats.

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 signed a lot of those hig

h school pitchers, and finished up with about $9 M spent in the draft.

Tony Sanchez proved to be better than most experts predicted, hitting for a .316/.415/.561 line in West Virginia, before moving up to Lynchburg to help them through their playoff run. The real test for Sanchez will be the jump to AA, which should occur next year, probably after some time in Lynchburg.

The success of this draft will depend on the high school pitchers, who we won’t see until next season, and who won’t start showing their true potential until their second or third years in the minors.

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: After a poor first half, in which Pedro Alvarez was batting .240/.325/.476 between Lynchburg and Altoona, I wrote this:

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.

Alvarez did exactly that. From that point forward, Alvarez hit for a .373/.472/.639 line in Altoona, with ten homers in 166 at-bats. His performance should earn him a promotion to AAA to start the 2010 season, and it’s back to looking like he’ll be a guarantee to be in the majors by June 2010.

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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.

BUCCO Fans.com 2009 MVP: Andrew McCutchen

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