18 Things to Watch For in 2010

I’ve been doing my 2010 preview this week, starting with a look at ten prospects who could make an impact in the majors this season, and following that up with potential trades during the 2010 season.  Today we have 18 things to watch for in 2010.  Last year I did 17 things to watch for besides the losing streak.  This year the theme is 18 things to watch for as the Pirates try to avoid 18 losing years in a row.

18. The Contract Status of Neal Huntington and John Russell
Both the Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington, and manager John Russell, are entering contract years.  There has already been some speculation that one, or both, could be on the chopping block depending on how the season goes.  I think the Pirates would be foolish to get rid of Huntington at this point.  They’ve spent two years watching him blow up the roster and build the team he wants.  That team is just starting to come together, but won’t be complete in 2010.  You can’t get rid of him in the middle of the plan, unless of course Pedro Alvarez just bombs, along with pretty much every other minor league prospect Huntington has acquired.
As for Russell, if Huntington is true to his Cleveland roots, I could see Russell sticking around.  Cleveland brought in Eric Wedge during their rebuilding plan, and Wedge played a similar role that Russell is now playing with the Pirates.  That role didn’t include scape goat.  Getting rid of Russell now would kind of be unfair.  I don’t know of any manager who could have competed the last two years given the conditions.  I’m no fan of Russell’s decision to bat the pitcher eighth this year, and I hate the “no triples” defense, but firing him because the team has lost for three years is not just cause.  I think the Pirates will let him stick around, simply because he probably wasn’t expected to win in 2008 and 2009, and won’t be judged poorly for those results.  At the same time, I really hope we see the end of the “no triples” defense.
17. The Jeff Locke BUCCO Fans Curse
Just a quick recap for you.  Last year, after coming over from the Atlanta Braves in the Nate McLouth trade, Jeff Locke made 19 starts for the Lynchburg Hillcats, including two playoff appearances.  Locke put up the following numbers during the regular season:

Games I Was In Attendance: 4 G, 18.2 IP, 7.23 ERA, 2.09 WHIP, 4.8 K/9, 1.7 K/BB
Games I Wasn’t In Attendance: 13 G, 63 IP, 3.14 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 6.6 K/9, 3.8 K/BB

Playoff Game I Was In Attendance For: 1.2 IP, 6 H, 4 ER, 3 BB, 2 K
Playoff Game I Wasn’t In Attendance For: 5.2 IP, 3 H, 0 ER, 1 BB, 5 K

If you think that’s bad, consider Locke’s final ten outings of the season:

7/29: 6 IP, 1 ER
8/4: 5 IP, 1 ER
8/9: 5.1 IP, 1 ER
8/14: 5.2 IP, 5 ER
8/21: 5 IP, 1 ER
8/26: 6 IP, 1 ER
9/1: 5.2 IP, 3 ER
9/6: 6.2 IP, 0 ER
9/11: 5.2 IP, 0 ER
9/17: 1.2 IP, 4 ER

Guess which two games I was in attendance for?  If you guessed 8/14 and 9/17, you’re correct.  I’m guessing Locke has a huge year in 2010, simply because I won’t be a short trip away from jinxing him.  The bad news for him is that I’ve already received my media credentials for the Richmond Flying Squirrels when Altoona comes to town.  If Locke is pitching, the curse may live on.

16. Tony Sanchez on the Fast Track

Sanchez will start the season at high-A, but might not be there for long.  He didn’t hit for a strong average in his brief appearance last year, but it seemed like every ball he hit was to the warning track, and he displayed great power with a homer at Wilmington, one of the hardest Carolina League parks to hit a homer in.

Sanchez could end up in AAA as early as August, putting him on track for the majors by early 2011.  His defense is strong, and might be major league above average already.  He also calls every game, and has some experience with the AA staff, which could help him speed through that stop.  If he can display the ability to hit at each level, he will definitely be on the fast track to the majors, possibly living up to his Yadier Molina comparison.

15. How will the bullpen work out?

There was a lot of talk about the bullpen this off-season.  First the Pirates traded Jesse Chavez, then they non-tendered Matt Capps.  They followed that up by signing Javier Lopez, Octavio Dotel, Brendan Donnelly, and D.J. Carrasco, along with a ton of non-roster invitees.  The results will be easy to judge.  Will Octavio Dotel outperform Matt Capps?  Will Brendan Donnelly outperform Jesse Chavez (the Akinori Iwamura acquisition has to be factored in to that one)?  The Pirates put a lot of effort in to building up the pen, acquiring some criticism along the way.  We’ll soon see how good of a job they actually did.

14. Charlie Morton: Breakout Pitcher?

A lot of people already have Charlie Morton as a potential breakout candidate in 2010.  Part of that stems from his strong performance last year, which was hidden by a one inning, ten earned run outing in August.  Take out that outing, and Morton had a 3.66 ERA in 96 innings, with a 61:37 K/BB ratio.  Morton has a chance to be a top of the rotation pitcher, and is my pick to be the 2010 version of Ross Ohlendorf.

13. Can Ross Ohlendorf repeat?

The Pirates can never seem to have back to back strong years from any of their pitchers.  Ross Ohlendorf will be the next pitcher to attempt back to back strong seasons.  Last week I looked at why there is reason for concern with Ohlendorf.  Ohlendorf’s 2009 season was largely influenced by luck, especially in the second half.  I won’t be surprised if he posts a 4.50 ERA in 2010.  If that happens it won’t be due to a curse.  It will be due to his 2009 luck disappearing.

12. Will Lastings Milledge hit for power?

The Pirates swapped Nyjer Morgan for Lastings Milledge last year, which is a move I loved as Milledge has more upside than Morgan.  The question is, can Milledge achieve that upside?  In his time with the Pirates in 2009, Milledge matched Morgan’s production.  He hit for a .291/.333/.395 line, and posted a 16.4 UZR/150 from the left field position.  However, getting similar production to Morgan doesn’t make the trade worthwhile.  Milledge needs to exceed Morgan’s production, and the easiest way to do that is to hit for power.

Milledge has done this in the past.  In 2008 he hit 14 homers, with 13 of those coming in 349 at-bats from the end of Ma

y to the end of the season.  That’s a 20 homer per season pace.  Most projections have him hitting around ten homers this year, with a slugging percentage in the .410-.425 range.  That’s an upgrade over Morgan, but what the Pirates need is a 20 homer season, and a slugging percentage over .450.

11. Can Andy LaRoche hit like September 2009?

Andy LaRoche entered September 2009 with a .245/.324/.367 line.  In his final 96 at-bats of the season, LaRoche hit for a .313/.359/.552 line, with five homers.  If LaRoche can come close to that number, he will pose an interesting problem for the Pirates: what to do with Pedro Alvarez.  LaRoche has strong defense at third, and if he can boost the offense, he may push Alvarez to first.  Or LaRoche could move to second, where he would become even more valuable, assuming he could learn the position.

Most projections have him hitting around .260 with about 15 homers and an OPS around .750.  That kind of production would warrant a move to second.  A .280 average, 20-25 homers, and an .850 OPS would be enough to keep LaRoche at third, and move Alvarez to first.

10. Will Ryan Doumit bounce back (and stay healthy)?

Doumit had a poor 2009 season, thanks in part to a wrist injury that kept him sidelined for most of the season.  Entering the month of September he was hitting for a .215/.250/.395 line, which is a far cry from his .318/.357/.501 line in 2008.  He finished up strong with a .329/.406/.459 line and two homers in his final 85 at-bats in 2009.  The key to Doumit’s season will be staying as healthy as possible, which is no easy feat.  If he manages this, he could easily repeat his 2008 success, which would be huge for the Pirates in 2010.

9. How will the Pirates handle the draft?

The 2010 draft hasn’t shaped up yet, but a few things are apparent.  Bryce Harper is the obvious number one talent, and the Pirates can’t afford to pass him up if the Washington Nationals don’t take him.  Jameson Taillon is looking like the second best prospect in the draft, although he’s a high school pitcher, and the Pirates took an unorthodox strategy in 2009 just to avoid taking a high school arm in the first round.  Drew Pomeranz and Deck McGuire are both having strong seasons, although both are college pitchers who come with risks due to the workload placed on college aces.  There’s also still time for Anthony Ranaudo and Christian Colon to regain top draft prospect status.

Anything could happen with the Pirates, as we saw last year.  I wouldn’t rule anything out, and that includes taking Taillon.  The only consistent trend the past two years is that they’ve taken a college bat in the first round, and have gone over slot in the later rounds.  There aren’t many college bats stepping up this year, which could break that trend.  As for the overslot guys in the later rounds, I fully expect that to continue.

8. Will Zach Duke or Paul Maholm be traded?

There’s a good chance that Duke or Maholm, or possibly both, will be traded this year.  Part of that has to do with the number seven thing to watch for.  Another part has to do with the success of guys in the rotation, like Morton, Ohlendorf, Daniel McCutchen, and Brad Lincoln in June.  Duke and Maholm are each under contract for a few more seasons, with Duke becoming a free agent after 2011, and Maholm having an option in 2012, with free agency in 2013.  Both could bring a big return for the Pirates, and in the long run (2011 season) their losses might not mean anything because…

7. How will the pitching depth work out?

The Pirates suddenly have a lot of pitching options, and a lot of them are getting close to the majors.  At the AAA level they will have Kevin Hart, Donald Veal, and Brad Lincoln, with Lincoln almost guaranteed to be up this season.  At the AA level they have Tim Alderson, Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke, and Justin Wilson.  All seven of these options could challenge for rotation spots as early as 2011.  That largely depends on how they do in the minors in 2010.  If the majority of them succeed, we could see a big “yes” to the question in #8.

6. What long term middle infield options will emerge?

Akinori Iwamura is only under contract for one season.  I’m not much of a believer in Ronny Cedeno, who is only under control for two seasons, and Bobby Crosby is only here for one year.  That means the Pirates need middle infielders, and they need them fast.  There are a few guys who could challenge for starting roles by mid-season 2011.  Chase d’Arnaud leads the group, with the ability to play either second base or shortstop.  Jordy Mercer needs to improve his hitting, and maybe hit for a little more power, but he could emerge as a shortstop in the Cal Ripken mold.  Josh Harrison is a speedy second baseman who might turn in to a David Eckstein type player, and might make a strong utility player with the ability to play third base and right field as well.

All three of those players will likely start the season at the AA level, putting them on track for the majors in June 2011.  Brian Friday could be an answer as early as 2010.  All he needs to go is get off to a hot start at AAA in 2010 to get consideration for a mid-season call-up.  Friday finished the 2009 season strong at AA, with a .275 average and a .388 on-base percentage.  There’s an outside chance that he could replace Iwamura as the second baseman this year, although that would require Friday to get hot right away at AAA.  Argenis Diaz is another middle infield option, with very strong defense, although Diaz only has the offensive upside of a guy like Jack Wilson.  Chances are Diaz will end up as a bench player, similar to Alex Gonzalez.

5. Jeff Clement’s defense

A lot has been made recently about Jeff Clement’s defense at first base.  Clement played the final month at first base in 2009 at the AAA level, and will get a shot at holding down the job in the majors.  Personally I’m more concerned with his offense, as I think his upside will be a .265 average

and an .800 OPS, and that’s hardly what you want from a first baseman.  Clement is a guy who can make or break the team, depending on how the experiment goes.  I don’t have high hopes, but I agree that this is the only time Clement has to prove himself, so the Pirates might as well see what they have.  Once Alvarez arrives in June, Clement could very well be without a spot, unless his performance keeps him in the lineup.

4. Surprises in the minor leagues

Last year we saw Rudy Owens, Chase d’Arnaud, and Starling Marte break out as surprises, along with a few other guys like Ramon Aguero and Ronald Uviedo.  Who will be the big surprises this year?

My big breakout player (or in this case, comeback player would be more appropriate) prediction is Bryan Morris.  Morris has been working on altering his mechanics, and has received good reports all Spring, plus he looked good while I was down at Pirate City.  I’m also looking forward to Exicardo Cayonez and Jorge Bishop making the jump from the Venezuelan Summer League.

Matt Hague could turn his gap power in to home runs this year, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all.  Calvin Anderson is huge, and I’m surprised he’s not putting up Ryan Howard like numbers with his size.  The Pirates also took a lot of talented arms in the 2009 draft, with Zach Von Rosenberg, Jeff Inman, Brooks Pounders, Nathan Baker, Zack Dodson, and Trent Stevenson getting the chance to show what they can do this year.

Two pitchers that I’ll be watching closely are Nelson Pereira and Jhonatan Ramos.  Pereira looked good last year, although his season numbers don’t reflect it.  Ramos looked strong when I saw him at Pirate City.  He may be small, but last year his numbers looked very effective, and in my brief time watching him it didn’t look like he was afraid to go after hitters.

3. How will the high school arms work out?

I mentioned it in #4, but this deserves it’s own category.  The Pirates took a very unorthodox approach in the 2009 draft, loading up on hard to sign high school talent in the later rounds by offering above slot signing bonuses.  In the end they netted Brooks Pounders, Zack Dodson, Zach Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, and Trent Stevenson.  Cain will start the season on the disabled list, and most of these guys will probably spend some time in extended Spring Training, similar to what Quinton Miller did last year.  Once July rolls around we’ll get our first chance to see whether the Pirates made the right moves in their scouting and selections of these players.

2. Will Andrew McCutchen and Garrett Jones repeat?

The 2009 season saw two pleasant surprises.  Garrett Jones came out of nowhere to surprise everyone with a .293/.372/.567 line and 21 homers in 314 at-bats.  Andrew McCutchen was expected to succeed one day, but I don’t think anyone expected him to have immediate success, which he did from day one, ending up with a .286/.365/.471 line and 12 homers in 433 at-bats.

Both players need to repeat their 2009 success to give the Pirates a chance in 2010.  That will be easier for McCutchen, who may even see improvement on his 2009 numbers.  As for Jones, it would be a lot to expect him to maintain a pace that would lead to 40 homers, although expecting 30 homers might not be out of the question.  The big question for Jones will be how he handles left handed pitching, which was a problem for him last year.  That will determine whether he can repeat his .293 average, or hit for an average closer to .260.

1. The debuts of Pedro Alvarez, Brad Lincoln, and Jose Tabata

If there’s one thing that impacts the long term success of the Pirates the most, it’s the debut of these three players.  Alvarez is the best prospect the Pirates have had since Barry Bonds.  Lincoln is the top pitching prospect in the system.  Tabata has a lot of upside, already proving to be a great hitter, but potentially having the ability to add some power to his game.

It’s safe to say that if these three players fail to reach their potential, the Pirates will be in for a long future.  The current rebuilding plan pretty much revolves around these three guys leading the team, along with McCutchen, who is already in the majors.  That means that by the end of June, we could see the core that might finally break the consecutive losing streak, and make the Pirates contenders.  That might be sooner than later if these three players come up with the same immediate success that we saw from McCutchen in 2009.

Check back tomorrow for a look at the expectations for the opening day roster members, plus the first game of the season, and thus the first live blog of the season.

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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.

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  • Mornacale

    Honestly, I think the only issue I have with this is the idea that Correia’s start tonight was good. About the only thing he did well was get ground balls at a reasonable clip. 7 IP, 1 K, 2 BB is just abysmal, though–that’s not a line that a Major League pitcher should throw. He was lucky that only 6 of the many balls in play against him went for hits, and he was even more likely that outside of one inning they all were evenly spread and hence didn’t turn into runs. You’re right to say that this start demonstrates why Correia should be replaced not despite it being good, but because it was BAD.

    (As a note, I think the most telling stat for Correia isn’t his awful K/9 or his BABIP, but his 4.2% swinging strike rate. He isn’t fooling anyone; even on pitches out of the zone, batters are making contact over 80% of the time [which actually might be contributing to his low BABIP]. I’m not at all convinced his HR/FB is going to come down; it’s in line with the last two years, and it seems like he’s just teeing it up out there and getting crushed for it.)

    I have to believe that the FO is smart enough to see that Correia is basically done. There are only two questions remaining, I think:

    1) Is moving to the bullpen going to do any good? If Correia’s just going to keep serving up meatballs–and I’m not convinced he has the stuff to do otherwise anymore–I’d rather cut him loose. It’s not like we’re hurting for long relief options, between Lincoln, Dan McCutchen, and the Altoona Four.

    2) Who replaces him? In part, this depends on the answer to #1: if Correia moves to the ‘pen (and assuming Bedard doesn’t go on the DL, which changes the whole calculus), then bringing up Owens or Locke (presumably Owens, especially with Locke’s outing today) would require sending someone down. This could be Jared Hughes, but a) I think it’s really questionable whether Correia is better than Hughes at this point, and b) that ends with us either forcing Brad Lincoln into short-inning relief (and hence essentially giving up on him as a starter) or having two guys with the exact same role, one of whom is clearly worse than the other.

    So I think you’re definitely correct that it’s time to remove Correia from the rotation (even if Bedard hits the DL, in my opinion). I think we should either cut him and give Rudy Owens a spot, or swap him and Brad Lincoln.

  • Lee Young

    I completely agree with your assessment. Add in the fact that he’s gone after this year, then its a no brainer. Which means Clint won’t do it.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Richard-YaZhynka/100000448392567 Richard Ya’Zhynka

    Could the canard of Correia’s good numbers give him some trade value with a team that is desperate for a starter? Is there a GM out there who doesn’t care about FIP? Correia’s is 5.09, which is much more in line with his actual performance than is his 3.47 ERA and 1.13 WHIP.

    Correia may have been unlucky with his 16.1% HR/FB ratio, but even with a 10% HR/FB, his K:BB numbers and BABIP would still portend a big increase in runs allowed. His xFIP of 4.39 (adjusting HR/FB to normal), though much better than his FIP, is still .92 higher than his ERA.

    A fifth starter with an ERA of 4.39 would be a significant improvement for some teams, but the Pirates have better options in Lincoln and – when he returns – Karstens.

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