In 2008, the Pirates had the worst record in the NL Central (though only the third-worst in the league), and their fourth consecutive 90+ loss year was also their sixteenth straight losing year, tying the major league record set by the Phillies from 1933 through 1948.
I'm here to tell you that the Pirates are going to break that record this year, but perhaps there is some light in the proverbial tunnel that will allow them to snap that streak by 2010 or 2011.
Before we continue, let's talk about the red uniforms. I am well aware that the Pirates made red one of their accent colors and had the red jerseys made to honor a former Pittsburgh mayor. Bur seriously -- couldn't they have chosen another way to honor him? A red bill on the cap? A flag at the park? A day in his honor?
Anyway, the good news is that the Pirates are dumping the red jerseys this year (I think McDonald's called and asked if they could have the entire set), and instead will have a classy-looking black button-front shirt as their alternate shirt.
The sentiment behind these was noble, but this red uniform
modeled by Zach Duke is one of the worst in baseball history
(photo via farm1.static.flickr.com)
They'll look better, but it won't help the results on the field. Last year, they traded away many of their better hitters, including Jason Bay and Xavier Nady, and collected a whole bunch of miscellaneous minor leaguers from the Red Sox and Yankees ("Say! Those guys are winners! Let's go get some of them!"), some of whom may help the Bucs in the future, and some who will become the answer to Pirate fans' trivia questions.
The Pirates really haven't changed a bit from the team that lost 95 games last year. Oh, except they have sent Tom Gorzelanny, who was a 14-game winner in 2007, to the minors. Gorzelanny's a mystery -- he couldn't get anyone out last year, posting an ungodly 6.66 ERA (and against the Cubs it was 17.18 -- that's right, a SEVENTEEN-PLUS ERA, 19 hits, 10 walks, 5 HR and 21 runs allowed 1n 11 innings. Cub fans should ask for his return), and had a bad spring. It's really inexplicable unless there's an undiagnosed injury.
Other members of last year's Pirate rotation return: Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, and Ian Snell. The fourth and fifth spots will be filled by guys like Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens (who were acquired in the Nady deal) or Virgil Vasquez, all of whom posted ERA's north of 4.00 last year. Karstens made his mark in his first two NL starts after the trade, throwing six shutout innings against the Cubs and then shutting out the Diamondbacks. But after that his NL ERA was 5.70, about in line with the rest of this woeful staff.
The Pirates have a decent closer, Matt Capps, who saved 21 games in 2008 despite spending almost two months on the DL. The problem is, there's really no one to bridge the gap between the bad starters and the ninth inning. Capps didn't blow a save in his first 15 chances last year, then blew five in the last three weeks of June and wound up on the DL. Healthy now, he'll save whatever games the Pirates manage to win.
The offense is centered around All-Star Nate McLouth, who is a fine player and who signed a contract extension over the winter. The Bucs are apparently trying to build around him, which isn't a bad idea, but they have little to build with. Catcher Ryan Doumit had a breakout offensive season and if the LaRoche brothers can have good hitting years, the Pirates may actually be able to score some runs. They'll need to, as they finished dead last in the NL in runs allowed in 2008 (884) and that isn't likely to change this year.
Pirates having good springs include Andy LaRoche, who is hitting .483 with six homers and Jeff Salazar, who has four HR and 13 RBI but who is apparently going to be cut because he's left-handed on a team looking for right-handed hitters -- just the opposite of what the Cubs are doing. The Pirates signed ex-Cub Craig Monroe and he's also having a good spring, hitting .286 with 6 HR and 11 RBI. Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates' top prospect, is also having a good spring, hitting .280 with 10 runs scored, and might wind up in the Pittsburgh outfield before 2009 is over. It's with guys like this that the Pirates could be contenders by 2011 or 2012.
But for now, predicted finish: last place, another 90+ loss season, the record 17th straight with a losing record.
That concludes the look at the 2009 NL Central. If you have liked this series, post in the comments; I could continue it next week with the rest of the NL if there's enough interest.