Baseball Season Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

For the third consecutive season, we are proud to introduce the Deadspin Baseball Season Previews. Yes, baseball is awfully close now; it's spring training, after all.

Every weekday until the start of the season, a different writer will preview his/her team. We asked a gaggle of writers, from the Web, from print, from books, to tell us, in as many or as little words as they need, Where Their Team Stands. This is not meant to be factual, or dispassionate, or even logical: We just asked them to riff on why they love their team so much, or what their team means to them, or whatever.

Today: The Pittsburgh Pirates. Your author is Don Spagnolo.

Don Spagnolo is a freelance writer and editor of Mondesi's House, a Pittsburgh sports comedy blog. His words are after the jump.

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16 Reasons Why the Pirates' Streak Won't End in 2008

I sat in this spot last year and labored through not one, not two, but 79 reasons why it's hard to be a Pirate fan. The research alone for that article made me question why I still bother with this organization. Of course, that in itself was the answer: they're a gold mine of comedic material, whether they try or not.

So what did the 2007 Pirates do to prove me wrong? For starters, they went 68-94, extending their streak to an amazing 15 consecutive losing seasons. Their big bat, outfielder Jason Bay, who never met a called strike three that he didn't like, watched his offensive output fall quicker than Roger Clemens' credibility. Freddy Sanchez, the 2006 NL batting champion, neatly shaved 40 points off of his batting average. Hired gun Adam LaRoche longed for the Mendoza Line for a significant part of the season. 2001 first-round pick John Vanbenschoten was called up to The Show and responded with a line of "0-7, 10.15". And remember Zach Duke, the wunderkind with an 8-2 record and 1.81 ERA in his rookie season of 2005? Well, that Pirate juice finally marinated in his system, and his numbers leveled off to a more appropriate 3-8, 5.53. Good thing we had pitching coach Jim Colborn around to straighten him out. No, not even a roster loaded with the likes of John Wasdin and Don Kelly was enough to turn the 2007 Pirates around.

So the on-field product was a mess. Shocking, I know. But not to be outdone, the Buccos' front-office managed to aggravate fans to levels previously unknown to these parts, which is saying a lot. The selection of relief pitcher Daniel Moskos as their first-round pick in the amateur draft sent Pirate fans into a fit of blind rage. Ironically, this happened around the same time that the Pirates were getting their heads handed to them during a weekend series at Yankee Stadium, so it's nice that they were able to synchronize the fans' on- and off-field disgust so nicely. The remaining tortured souls privately known as Pirate Fans actually organized a walkout, complete with the bashing of promotional bobbleheads that the team has secretly built their hopes around.

Following this comedy of errors, CEO Kevin McClatchy stepped down, leaving HUGE, Shaquille O'Neal-sized shoes to fill. Manager Jim Tracy was shown his walking papers, so now he can finally pursue his career goal of managing the 2004 L.A. Dodgers to a championship. For those of you who don't follow the Pirates, which would be all of you, Tracy would talk endlessly about his '04 Dodgers. How deep did this fixation run? Well, he basically told Jack Wilson, a three-time runner-up for the Gold Glove, to approach ground balls more like Cesar Izturis. He told Jose Castillo to be like Adrian Beltre. He told players to be versatile, like Jose Hernandez. It was a sickness.

Pirate Nation was finally gifted with the firing of GM Dave Littlefield, who took over a 62-100 Pirates team in 2001 and magically turned them into a 68-94 team a short six years later. Rival GMs around the league shed a tear, as they will no longer have the human Blue-Light Special around to gift them that perfect stocking-stuffer third baseman at the deadline. As his final act, Littlefield and the Pirates pulled the trigger on a trade for $9.5 million dollar pitcher Matt Morris, who was plodding along with a 4.35 ERA, to strengthen the Pirates for their postseason run. Sure, they were 42-62 at the time, but that division was wide open. If you ever want to know more about Dave Littlefield, there are plenty of fine books at your local library. But an easier way would be to read his Wikipedia page, where his failures are outlined in a neat little package.

In typical Pirate fashion, they tried to distract their paying customers from the spectacle on the field. Bobbleheads. Airborne hot dogs. Pierogi races. And the pièce de résistance, a viral video parody of The Sopranos' final episode. This is what we've evolved to. Pops Stargell is spinning in his grave.

So with that as a backdrop, prepare to be wowed with this year's list, 16 Reasons Why the Pirates Streak Won't End in 2008. Yes, this is the year that the Pirates go for the record: they can tie the Phillies' streak of 16 consecutive losing seasons from 1933-1948 and presumably break the record in 2009. Hey, at least it will give us a reason to watch games later in the season.

16. We've heard this the last 15 years.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 15 times, shame on me.

Every year, the Pirates have a new spin on the idea that this will be the year that their fortunes change. Usually, they pitch the notion of an exciting core of young players ready to turn the corner. Sometimes, they do turn the corner...and after that, they end up playing third for the Cubs.

When they're not selling the up-and-comers, they bring in a token veteran or two to toss to the winning-starved Pirate fans. More often than not, they're about 5-10 years too late (see: Mondesi, Raul and Bell, Derek), although they do give quite the inspiration for someone trying to name their new blog.

So where you once saw the names "Kris Benson", "Jason Kendall", and "Jose Guillen" as rays of hope, you now see "Freddy Sanchez", "Jason Bay", and "Jack Wilson". In both cases, they were nice players. In neither case were they players to build a franchise around.

15. They hired Sid Bream!

Imagine the worst moment in your favorite team's history. Then imagine your favorite team hiring the player that helped beat them. Because that's exactly what the Pirates did when they hired Sid F-ing Bream as the hitting coach for their single-A short-season team, the State College Spikes. Was Francisco Cabrera unavailable?

It was Bream's desperate dash for home plate that beat the Pirates in the 1992 NLCS, kicking off a decade-and-a-half of losing baseball. And since Barry Bonds hadn't yet met Greg Anderson or Victor Conte, the less-than-fleet Bream beat Barry's throw, sending the Braves into the World Series and running the Pirates' streak of consecutive NLCS losses to three.

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14. The "Bizarre" Freddy Sanchez Contract

By all accounts, Freddy Sanchez has been one of the very few bright spots in the Pirates' organization the past two seasons. He's a hard worker. He's overcome a clubbed foot. He won the batting title in 2006. He has an extremely likable personality and fans love him. He's basically everything that you would want in a player on your team.

So as you would expect, the Pirates jerked him around in contract negotiations until he finally signed a new deal earlier this month. The headline in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette read, "Pirates, Sanchez agree to unusual three-year deal". Only the Pirates would have such a banner when signing what is probably considered the face of their franchise.

Baseball Season Preview: Pittsburgh PiratesS

Of course, the Pirates haven't exactly given Sanchez the diva treatment during his time here. The only reason he played so much in 2006 was due to an injury to starting third baseman Joe Randa, who is currently playing for...no one. In another example of the Pirates not knowing how to evaluate players, they brought in Randa, a mediocre-at-best third baseman, who was at the end of the line (and at a cost of $4 million) when they had the eventual batting champion wasting away on the bench. Yep, we're all going to miss Dave Littlefield and Jim Tracy.

13. Introducing...John Russell!

Since the Pirates relieved the manager of the 2004 Dodgers of his duties, they had a rare chance to add a top-flight skipper. Who would they bring in? Joe Torre? Joe Girardi?

Come on, this is the Pirates! It doesn't matter if they had Casey Stengel in his prime. Knowing that, the Pirates went for former third base coach John Russell, who was actually canned in 2005 by the team. Since he couldn't handle knowing when to send or hold runners back then, you can feel confident that he'll now oversee the entire team.

Luckily for Russell, he joined a franchise where .500 would be celebrated like an NFL team going 16-0 and WINNING the Super Bowl. So to say he's playing with house money is an understatement.

12. You know things are bad when Johnny Estrada says no

The Pirates are like the ugly kid that can't get a date. In this year's crop of free agents, they were turned down by the likes of catcher Johnny Estrada, who instead chose the freaking Nationals. They were also the runners-up for reliever Luis Vizcaino, who signed with Colorado, and Chad Durbin, who instead chose Philadelphia. It's like the Pirates are offering players foreign currency; to sign a legit player, Pirate dollars would have to be at least double what an established franchise would fork over.

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Needless to say, they didn't even bother asking A-Rod out.

11. No free agent? No problem? Let's make a deal. Or not.

OK, so the Pirates landed zero big free agents in the offseason. Sorry, but I don't think Chris Gomez falls into that category. Our hope then shifted to the trading block. Would the Pirates unload one of their better players to bring some building blocks back in return? Maybe Jason Bay, Jack Wilson, or Ian Snell? Welllllll....no.

The biggest deal that was on the table was Bay and catcher Ronny Paulino to the Indians for outfielder Franklin Gutierrez, catcher Kelly Shoppach and either starter Cliff Lee or a minor-league pitching prospect. Needless to say, our new GM turned his nose as this proposal, the first sign that he might be better than his predecessor.

10. OK, how about Bartolo Colon?

Making the transition to "truly desperate," the Pirates watched pitcher/human zeppelin Bartolo Colon pitch in the Carribean Series. Colon was also scouted by the Astros, who ultimately didn't sign him because his size wasn't a result of HGH, as they had hoped.

While Colon's 6.34 ERA and $14 million paycheck sounds perfectly suited for the Pirates' expensive, washed-up superstar approach that's worked so well in the past, they have resisted the urge (so far) to sign the burly righthander.

9. Jaret Wright's still alive, isn't he?

Not to be denied, the Pirates did pluck a former big-name off the scrap heap, this one being Jaret Wright, whose career likely peaked in 2004 with Atlanta. "His history of arm troubles will help him fit right in," I imagine GM Neal Huntington saying the day he signed him.

As an amusing sidenote, I found out that Wright uses the alias "Turd Ferguson" on the road, in order to avoid unwanted fan attention. Somehow, I think that nickname will stick in Pittsburgh, only this time it will be for on-the-field performance.

8. We need a first baseman

The Pirates acquired first baseman Adam LaRoche from the Braves last year in a deal that had waaaay too much local hype. To quote myself from last year's preview:

10. The arrival of Adam LaRoche. LaRoche was celebrated as if the Pirates traded for a combination of Albert Pujols, Babe Ruth, and Roberto Clemente times 100. Anything less than 82 home runs and 195 RBI this year would be considered a disappointing season.

Would you consider a sub-.200 batting average until Mid-May a disappointment? Eventually, LaRoche raised his average later in the season during all of those pressure-packed games in August, when the team really needed it. But for the full season, the disappointment level was a solid 9 on the 1-10 scale.
So the Pirates elected to bring in Doug Mientkiewicz from the used car lot for a thorough tire kicking in 2008. Mientkiewicz is a career .271 hitter with 64 homers in 10 MLB seasons, and his most famous baseball achievement is taking home the last-out ball from the 2004 Red Sox, to the chagrin of Red Sox Nation. So it's safe to say that we're stuck with the Klopek kid from The Burbs for the forseeable future.

7. Tom Gorzelanny, Injury Candidate

Tom Gorzelanny was a pleasant surprise in 2007. He threw 200+ innings, he won an amazing 14 games on a 68-win team, and he had a 3.88 ERA. But we're Pirate fans. We're used to the sky eventually falling.

So imagine my lack of surprise when SI's Tom Verducci placed Gorzelanny on his list of "Seven young pitchers most at risk for injury or a significantly higher ERA in 2008". Says Verducci:

"Gorzelanny was 1-3 with a 5.77 ERA in September while throwing 639 pitches, his second-highest monthly total (by only five pitches) of the season. While Gorzelanny was passing his career high in innings, the Pirates let him throw 105, 118, 107, 107 and 117 pitches in meaningless consecutive September starts. Why?"

Because they get quantity discounts at Dr. James Andrews' office, that's why. This is an organization that's sat by as first-rounder after first-rounder has suffered an arm injury to stop or severely slow their career. Luckily, they drafted a pitcher yet again in the first round in 2007, so even if Gorzelanny doesn't blow out his arm, odds are that Daniel Moskos will.

6. They're bad at everything

The 2000 Baltimore Ravens managed to win the Super Bowl despite glaring offensive weaknesses. Not even the great Brian Billick could figure them out, even in his greatest hour. Is there any chance of the Pirates being strong at one part of the game to the point that it could carry them to the postseason?

No.

The Succaneers hover near the bottom in numerous MLB categories. In 2007, they ranked 22nd in home runs, 23rd in runs, 20th in batting average, 25th in on-base pct., 26th in ERA, 28th in saves, 26th in shutouts, 25th in strikeouts, 29th in opponent's batting average, etc., etc., etc. You get the point.

No, not even Trent Dilfer nor Qadry Ismail would make a difference for this squad.

5. Jason Bay is not happy

Jason Bay usually makes about as much noise as your average mime. Never before have I seen a player so inappropriately thrust into a leadership role. So you can imagine my surprise when The Muted One finally opened his mouth to reveal that he was disappointed with the Pirates' offseason inactivity.

Fantastic. I'm glad that Bay feels comfortable enough to speak his mind. Unfortunately, the 2004 NL Rookie of the Year chose a time when he's coming off his most disappointing year as a Pirate, as his numbers fell from 35/109/.286 in 2006 to 21/84/.247 in 2007. And as previously mentioned, he's turned the called strike three into an art form, which the city has duly noted.

His impeccable timing has already irked the new front office, which preferred that Bay aired his grievances with them rather than through the media. It's great to see that one of our star players is starting off on such a good foot with his new bosses.

He's obviously bitter over the dead-end trade with Cleveland, but that's for two obvious reasons:

1. All he was worth on the open market was Cliff Lee, which is a major shot to any slugger's ego, and;
2. He's still stuck in Pittsburgh, at least until he pulls a Raul Mondesi and concocts an extortion plot to get his release.

Baseball Season Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

4. There's not much help on the way

Minorleagueball.com recently ranked each team's top 20 prospects, and sorry Pirate fans, but I don't have much good news to pass along for the future. Outside of outfielder/futureYankee/Met/Red Sock Andrew McCutcheon, no prospect earned an "A" grade, and only three others reached even a "B". The author adds, "What a horrible system. There isn't much else to say about it."

There might not be another organization in pro sports that's frittered away more high draft picks than the Pirates. It would be the baseball equivalent of a Ryan Leaf-level disaster, year after year after year. But at least the Chargers eventually turned things around. They had a Tomlinson fall into their lap. They picked up a Merriman, a Rivers.

The Pirates' drafts have been run like the guy in your fantasy league who's had one (or 15) too many. Eventually, that catches up with you, and the cupboard is bare. Which would explain the Pirates fans starving for a winner.

3. Historically bad pitching

Last May, I pondered about the Pirates' pitching. Then I started doing research. And that means a lengthy post. Among my findings:

—The Pirates have had a grand total of six 20-game winners in the past 60 years.
—The Pirates have 34 players in the Hall of Fame Eight are pitchers, and of the eight, none played for the Pirates for more than seven seasons. The only one in the postwar-era (Jim Bunning) played just two seasons.
—The Pirates have had two Cy Young winners. Ever. That would be Vern Law in 1960 and Doug Drabek in 1990.

So my conclusion was that the Pirates never had a Randy Johnson-type on their squad. I know, it's groundbreaking research. While they've had many good pitchers, the truly elite hurler has eluded their grasp for practically their entire existence.

What's this mean for 2008? Well, we have Tom Gorzelanny's soon-to-fall-off left arm, Paul Maholm's 5.02 ERA, Zach Duke's destroyed confidence, and Matt Morris' bloated contract (and ERA to match) to look forward to. Our lone shot to change this trend looks to be Ian Snell, a fiery 190-pound righthander who takes way too much pride in his work to be a Pirate. Unfortunately, history is not on his side.

2. The Nuttings

The face of the Pirates' front office has been Kevin McClatchy. It's a nerdy face that often sat behind home plate in shirt, tie, and ballcap, the look only acceptable if you just got picked in the NHL, NBA or NFL draft:

Baseball Season Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

McClatchy rescued the Pirates, he kept them in the city, and he even got an incredible new stadium built. The only part of the equation that he forgot was the winning part. A minor detail, yes. So McClatchy finally went by the wayside in July 2007, stepping down as CEO. He was replaced by Frank Coonelly, who had been a senior vice president in the commissioner's office.

So without McClatchy to kick around, Pirate fans quickly realized that they could direct their anger towards new majority owner Bob Nutting. Nutting's served as the Pirates' Chairman of the Board since 2003, which means he's been on the clock for his share of atrocious baseball.

While knowing very little about him, I can only assume one thing: he's already smarter than McClatchy, as he allowed the ex-CEO to absorb most of the slings and arrows of the past few years that he was at least partially responsible for.

On the other hand, his 2007 letter to the Pirate fans touting "our core group of exciting, young, talented players" and "the leadership of Jim Tracy" looks kind of silly in retrospect.

His father, Ogden Nutting, has been an investor in the Pirates for years and was very much on-board with the Pirates' thrifty ways. Like McClatchy, Nutting is a newspaper man. I found these glowing quotes about the Nutting's other business, which translate almost exactly from newspapers to baseball:

Nutting newspapers are "not known for the best pay," and they have a reputation as "tough bargainers," said Edgar Simpson, chief of policy and administration for Ohio's attorney general and former state editor for United Press International.

"They weren't focused on winning (journalism) awards," said Cleveland Plain Dealer education reporter Ellen Kleinerman, who worked at The Intelligencer, the Nuttings' morning newspaper in Wheeling. "They're focused on running a business."

First thing to cross my mind when I see these quotes: See you at the World Series!

1. They kept together the nucleus

Perhaps the biggest reason that the Pirates' fortunes won't change: they've largely kept the nucleus of their 94-loss team intact.

Pirate spin-doctoring would have you believe that most players underachieved last year. But if that's the case, then they historically underachieve. With few exceptions (most notably Mr. Bay), most players, such as Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez, and Adam LaRoche, equalled their career averages.

So how little did the roster change? Well, gone from 2007 are pitchers Tony Armas and Salomon Torres, Utilityman Josh Phelps, SS Cesar Izturis, 1B Brad Eldred, and 2B Jose Castillo. Among them, I count zero impact players.

Incoming are RHPs Marino Salas, Kevin Roberts, and Ty Taubenheim, SS Ray Olmedo and Josh Wilson, IF Chris Gomez, and the aforementioned Wright and Mientkiewicz, on minor-league deals. Among them, I count zero impact players.

Basically, the hot-stove league was a wash. Thankfully, we have Big Ben and Sid the Kid to keep us occupied, otherwise the city's sports fans would have surely perished due to sheer boredom this winter.

As a fan base, we've given up the hope of signing a big-ticket free agent or even trading for a high-end player. Why? Because we're more than a player or two away. And whoever we'd trade for would surely soak up the losing culture within their first five minutes of putting on that uniform. How many more games would the Pirates win if they had A-Rod? Five? 10? Great. We're still under .500.

In all seriousness, the Pirates do have some nice players. But they don't have that "10" that has eluded them since Barry Lamar Bonds fled to the West Coast some 15 years ago. And until they find that elusive missing piece, their consecutive-seasons losing streak will continue to directly correlate with the loss of the slugging malcontent.

Which brings me to my final point/suggestion. Currently, a free agent outfielder sits on the open market. He had 28 home runs and an on-base pecentage of .480 in only 126 games last season. Both of those would have led the Pirates in 2007. He'll sell tickets. He'll get people talking about baseball in Pittsburgh again. But who is this mystery man the Pirates need to sign to lift them out of their 15-year funk?

Baseball Season Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates