Neal Huntington should recognize the position he’s in now. In 2007, he inherited a 94-loss team from Dave Littlefield, aka, The Worst GM in Modern Baseball History. This year’s Pirates stand (pending the outcome of Tuesday night’s game) at 20 games under .500; a 94-loss season appears very likely, even optimistic given their post-All-Star disintegration. The significant factor, though, isn’t the number of losses so much as the fact that the Pirates stand at the end of a failed plan.
In the years leading up to 2007, Littlefield’s “plan” — to the extent that word can be used in connection with the clown show that was the Kevin McClatchy Pirates — was to cobble together the cheapest possible group of veterans who might be able to end the team’s long losing streak. Littlefield had no interest in prospects or untried players of any sort. He only wanted established players who fit within his miniscule budget and who could (theoretically) produce right now and help put up a .500 season. He ended up with a team on which the “strength,” to use the word loosely, was a group of position players who, while vastly overrated by many Pirate fans at the time, seemed at least solid: Jason Bay, Xavier Nady, Adam LaRoche, Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez. The problem was, all of these players were within a year or two of free agency. When the “plan” failed, the team was left with a nucleus of soon-to-depart players and nothing to fall back on. The farm system was so bad that Huntington, when he traded the veterans, couldn’t call anybody up from AAA to fill out the roster. There was nobody.
The team is at a similar crossroads now. This front office is far more sophisticated, and also much more cynical. The plan now has been to put the cheapest possible .500 team on the field and hope something wonderful happens. Huntington has focused all his efforts on loading the roster with cheap, controllable, decent-ish talent, with a goal of hanging on the fringes of the playoff race through August, year after year after year. But the plan failed. The Pirates have drastically over-estimated the quality of that cheap talent, as one MLB exec recently intimated to Ken Rosenthal. Now they’re stuck with only a middling farm system and the owner won’t commit any financial resources at all. The payroll is so wildly inadequate that they’ve been limited in the offseason to filling holes on a team badly in need of upgrades with the likes of Jordan Lyles, Lonnie Chisenhall and Eric Gonzalez, solely because they’re cheap. They can’t fix things simply with a few, ultra-cheap moves. The roster needs a significant overhaul if the team is to have any chance of contention, and The Plan doesn’t allow for that.
The big question, of course, is whether the Pirates’ front office will acknowledge that a few tweaks won’t be nearly enough. The signs aren’t especially good. The team deluded itself at the trade deadline into thinking it already had playoff potential, therefore there was no need to trade Felipe Vázquez. Tim Williams recently discussed Ray Searage’s belief that the pitchers, who rank near the bottom of MLB in every sort of ranking, just weren’t executing their pitches. And then there’s Huntington’s radio show of the past weekend. He allowed that changes are needed and conceded that he hadn’t put the right players on the field. (If you’re wondering why Huntington is still employed, consider his willingness to act as a human shield for the bargain-basement owner.) But Huntington also pointed to the number of close games the team has played (although their Pythagorean record is only a couple games better than their actual record), as if the team was just this far away from being not horrible since the All-Star break. And he added that maybe the problem was the coaching, or the players’ execution.
The simple fact is, this is a bad team. Coaching and execution problems don’t leave a team 20 games under .500. Lack of talent does. The bullpen needs to be torn down to the foundation (i.e., Vázquez). The rotation needs several starters who are more than just back-of-the-rotation types, and the only ones with that level of ability currently in the system are, potentially, Jameson Taillon and Mitch Keller. Taillon will miss part of next season and both are question marks at this point, for different reasons. The offense needs power, and a lot of it, somewhere in the lineup other than Josh Bell. Winning in today’s game without the longball is nearly impossible and the Pirates, not coincidentally, have ranked in the NL’s bottom four in all of their recent non-playoff years. Ultra-cheap additions like Chisenhall and Gonzalez won’t make the slightest dent in that deficit. And injuries don’t account for the Pirates’ problems, either. A lot of the injuries have actually helped, by giving playing time to players — Bryan Reynolds, Kevin Newman, Jose Osuna and Jacob Stallings — who wouldn’t otherwise have gotten it and who’ve played far better than the players they replaced. The only injury that’s had a meaningful impact was Taillon’s, and he wouldn’t have made more than a 3- to 4-win difference.
So the big question is whether the Pirates will acknowledge that The Plan has utterly failed. It wasn’t poor execution or injuries or bad luck. It was a bad plan. Launching a new plan is painful, exactly what the current plan, with its ludicrous notion of
contending competing every year, was intended to avoid. Closing the books on it would be out of character for a radically risk-averse owner and front office. We’ll see in the coming months whether they have the stomach for it.
Indianapolis has 21 games left. They trail by eight games in the division and 8.5 games in the wild card.
Altoona has 20 games left. They trail by 14 in the division.
Bradenton has 18 games left. They trail by 11.5 games in the division.
Greensboro has 20 games left. They trail by 4.5 in the division and they are a 1/2 game back for the second best record, which could possibly get them a playoff spot.
Morgantown has 19 games left. They trail by 1.5 games in the division and 1.5 games in the wild card spot.
Bristol has 14 games left. They trail by two in the division and they’re one out of the second playoff spot.
GCL Pirates have 16 games left. They trail by 13.5 in the division.
DSL Pirates1 have been eliminated from the playoffs.
DSL Pirates2 have clinched a playoff spot
Today’s Starter and Notes: The Pittsburgh Pirates won 10-7 over the Los Angeles Angels on Tuesday night. They will send out Chris Archer for the series finale today. Archer went six innings in his last start, allowing two runs against the St Louis Cardinals. In his previous outing against the New York Mets, he gave up one run over six innings. Archer has a devilishly poor 6.66 ERA in ten road starts. He has a 3.98 home ERA. The Angels will counter with 26-year-old lefty Dillon Peters, who has a 3.45 ERA in 31.1 innings, with 27 strikeouts and a 1.34 WHIP. He faced the Red Sox in Boston during his last start and allowed three runs over six innings. In one start and three relief outings, he has a 3.96 ERA at home, with a 1.68 WHIP and a .319 BAA.
The minor league schedule includes an early afternoon game for Indianapolis, who will be sending out Brandon Waddell. He’s looking to get on track at Triple-A after putting up strong numbers as a starter in Altoona. Since returning to Indianapolis, he has given up 18 runs in 12.2 innings as a starter. He allowed just nine earned runs in seven starts in Double-A. Altoona should be sending out Cody Bolton, who has flipped between good and bad outings in his last six games. His good outings have produced just one run allowed over 17 innings. (UPDATE: Cam Vieaux is going today in his return to Altoona. Bolton has been pushed back one day)
Bradenton has a doubleheader today. Aaron Shortridge will get the start in game one, while game two will be a bullpen game, with Ike Schlabach likely starting things off. Shortridge has thrown 13.2 shutout innings over his last two starts combined. Will Kobos will go for Greensboro for the fourth time. He has thrown nine shutout innings over his last two starts, after giving up four runs in his first outing. Fourth round pick JC Flowers went four innings for the first time in his last start. He set a new high during his very brief career with six strikeouts. The DSL Pirates2 have off today, followed by a doubleheader tomorrow. Bristol has off today.
MLB: Pittsburgh (50-69) @ Angels (58-63) 8:07 PM
Probable starter: Chris Archer (5.23 ERA, 131:53 SO/BB, 113.2 IP)
AAA: Indianapolis (59-60) vs Rochester (60-60) 1:35 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Brandon Waddell (9.91 ERA, 49:33 SO/BB, 42.2 IP)
AA: Altoona (59-61) @ Harrisburg (64-55) 6:30 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Cody Bolton (4.85 ERA, 33:15 SO/BB, 39.0 IP)
High-A: Bradenton (63-56) @ Florida (47-73) 4:00 PM DH (season preview)
Probable starter: Aaron Shortridge (3.26 ERA, 89:24 SO/BB, 118.2 IP) and TBD
Low-A: Greensboro (71-48) @ Kannapolis (53-66) 7:00 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: Will Kobos (2.57 ERA, 14:6 SO/BB, 11.0 IP)
Short-Season A: Morgantown (31-25) @ Batavia (33-24) 7:05 PM (season preview)
Probable starter: JC Flowers (3.46 ERA, 15:7 SO/BB, 13.0 IP)
Rookie: Bristol (26-27) @ Princeton (25-28) 6:30 PM 8/15 (season preview)
Probable starter: Luis Ortiz (3.08 ERA, 29:14 SO/BB, 38.0 IP)
GCL: Pirates (13-27) vs Red Sox (19-19) 12:00 PM (season preview)
DSL: Pirates1 (29-33) vs Rangers1 (50-12) 10:30 AM (season preview)
DSL: Pirates2 (50-12) vs Tigers2 (29-33) 10:30 AM DH 8/15 (season preview)
From Mitch Keller’s first big league win
8/13: Pirates sign Isaias Dipre.
8/13: Nicholas Economos assigned to Bradenton.
8/13: Tom Koehler assigned to Altoona. Francisco Cervelli assigned to Indianapolis on rehab.
8/12: Pirates recall Mitch Keller. Richard Rodriguez placed on injured list.
8/11: Pirates release Tyler Lyons. Cody Ponce promoted to Indianapolis.
8/11: Clay Holmes activated from injured list. Parker Markel optioned to Indianapolis.
8/11: Francisco Cervelli assigned to Altoona on rehab.
8/11: Rookie Davis assigned to Indianapolis on rehab.
8/10: Mariano Dotel assigned to GCL Pirates on rehab.
8/9: Braeden Ogle activated from Bradenton injured list.
8/9: Pirates release Eduardo Vera. Cam Vieaux sent to Altoona.
8/9: Kyle Mottice activated from Greensboro injured list. Victor Ngoepe sent to Morgantown.
8/9: Tom Koehler assigned to Morgantown on rehab
8/8 Robbie Glendinning placed on Altoona injured list. Bralin Jackson activated from Altoona injured list.
8/8: Max Kranick placed on Bradenton injured list.
8/7: Pirates sign Luis Joseph.
8/7: Eric Wood activated from temporary inactive list.
8/6: Steven Brault activated from injured list. Richard Rodriguez activated from paternity list. Dario Agrazal and Yefry Ramirez optioned to Indianapolis.
8/6: Tom Koehler assigned to GCL Pirates on rehab
8/6: Pirates release Joseivin Medina
8/5: Pirates sign Omar Alonzo and Juan Fuentes.
8/5: Yoyner Fajardo promoted to Bristol. Fernando Villegas promoted to Morgantown.
8/5: Clay Holmes assigned to Altoona on rehab.
8/4: Blake Weiman placed on Indianapolis injured list.
8/4: Pirates release Jung Ho Kang
THIS DATE IN PIRATES HISTORY
Two former Pittsburgh Pirates players born on this date, plus a transaction of note. On this date in 1911, the Pirates sold first baseman John Flynn to St Paul of the American Association, which is where the Pirates purchased him from following the 1909 season. During that 1909 season, the Pirates went with Bill Abstein at first base all season. Despite the fact he was a regular and they won the World Series, he was not well liked. Fans believed that he didn’t always give 100% and he wasn’t the smartest baseball player. After the season, the Pirates brought in two minor league first baseman to compete for the job, with Flynn eventually winning over Bud Sharpe. By 1911, future Hall of Fame manager Bill McKechnie took over the spot and Flynn became expendable.
Dale Coogan, 1950 first baseman. He made the Opening Day roster as a rookie, but by July he was sent back to the minors for more seasoning. The Pirates actually called him up in September 1950 and 1951, though he never played after that first July. He ended up spending the next two years in the Army and he wasn’t able to regain his skills after the time off, spending the rest of his career in the minors.
Alex McKinnon, first baseman on Opening Day in 1887, the first Pittsburgh game in NL history. The Alleghenys moved from the American Association to the NL following the 1886 season and they purchased McKinnon that December. He was hitting .340 through 48 games in 1887 when he came down with typhoid pneumonia. He ended up passing away 20 days after his last game with Pittsburgh. You can read a full bio of McKinnon here.