Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pirates 2012: A Periodic Assessment (4 of 8)

Well, we are just over the half-way point of the season with the All Star Game in just two days. In our first and second periodic assessments, we focused on the Pirates’ need for some offense and pretty much indicted the GM for failing to address obvious needs during the offseason. In our last assessment, we noted that a sea-change seemed to be underway, in that the Pirates were more than holding their own and just a few games out of first place.

Today our Buccos are eleven games over .500.  In the last week, they beat up on a poor team (the Astros) and won two of three from a good one (the Giants). They are in first place and playing solid baseball offensively and defensively, and in their last game before the break, they made a definitive statement that they are to be taken seriously – a 13-2 pummeling of the Giants.  Best of all, they appear here to stay - I don't think we'll see a collapse like last year.

In part, this is because this appears to be a better balanced team that last year’s, with more stability all around (Brandon Wood anyone?) and more experience under their belts.  In part, though, this assessment is based on a personal experience. The last games I attended this year (so far) were the first two of the series in Baltimore. The good is that I got to spend some time with my man Scott and his kids, and I got to bring my own kids to a game as well which I always enjoy. Also, the first game I saw was fairly empty and there were no lines whatsoever at Boog’s BBQ, so we had fantastic sandwiches washed down with some fine brew.

That was the good part. Not much to add. You know how sometimes, even when your team loses, you say “well, it was just great being at this tremendous ballpark anyway, and any game is a good one, and I just like taking in the beauty of the atmosphere and enjoying the purity and tradition of the greatest sport ever invented, and boy, the grass was so green?”

Well, these weren’t those kinds of games. They were horrible blow outs and the team looked lost and overmatched. I just couldn’t wait for them to end!

But this is exactly the kind of series that could have sapped the team of its energy and enthusiasm, and led to a premature end to the season. It could very easily have been a Jerry Meals moment. 

Instead, they did what good teams do. They put the series behind them and since those games, they amassed a 16 and 7 record and went from 2 games over .500 to 11 games over.

A second thing I’d point to is the willingness to make hard personnel decisions. True enough, it looks like they’re going to stick with the horrible hitting Clint Barmes for the season. They made a big investment and they like his defense and that’s just going to be the way it’s going to be. On the other hand, two starting players from the beginning of the year were demoted, with one still in AAA. That shows a commitment to winning and the team gets credit for that. And of course, they stuck with Pedro when many commentators, including this one, wanted him to start the year in the minors or get sent there early in the season.  Pedro seems to have turned a corner – his slumps don’t seem to last as long – and he’s becoming a viable source of power.

It’s all very encouraging and if I had to boil it down to one or two words, they would be resiliency and tenacity. The team works hard and puts bad games behind them. Most encouraging, they seem to support each other and have a genuine camaraderie and desire to win. And once losing stops being tolerated, there’s no limit to what a team can do.

So, what should the Pirates do with the trade deadline approaching?  The spectrum of options under discussion on message boards, twitter, the blogosphere, and elsewhere seem to range from standing pat to going for the big splash.  The argument for the first is that the team is hitting the cover off the ball, the pitching continues to be a strength, and why mess with success? Further, there are three starters in AAA and one highly prized prospect who looks ready to bloom on offense, so we may not need to go outside of the system. One writer who I respect immensely calls this the “Tampa Bay” model.  

The argument for the latter is that an impact player – like a Cole Hamels – could have the effect that Cliff Lee had on the Rangers in 2010, or that the CC Sabathia acquisition had on the Brewers in 2008. As a Brewer, recall, Satathia went 11-2 with a 1.65 ERA - not too shabby.  

It would be hard to argue with a Cole Hamels. The price is likely to be high though, even though he’s a free agent at the end of the year. Such a move seems inconsistent with the philosophy of our GM, who seems unlikely to give up the farm system for a two month rental. I just don’t think that’s the way Neal Huntington, the poster-boy for building through the draft and maintaining a robust minor league system, is likely to go.

Standing pat is also worrisome to me. There’s no guarantee that some of these guys will keep playing at their current levels. Further, if we have the ingredients in place for a serious post-season run, we need all the tools we can get. Our goal shouldn’t be squeaking in; it should be taking charge of the race and establishing ourselves as the team others need to chase.

That means reinforcements.

So I would advocate a middle course. I see a need for at least one more bat, and another solid – even if not spectacular – starter. In the latter category, I’m thinking a Joe Saunders type, a reliable innings eater having a good season (when healthy!) and a lefty to boot. On the offense, my expectation is that Neal will be willing to part with some of his highly valued prospects, but not the stars of the system; and that he’ll be interested in players that the Pirates can control for a few years.  if I had my druthers, I’d go for Josh Willingham of the Twins, or Kendrys Morales, who seems to be the forgotten man in Anaheim. They’d be controlled for a few years and could prove to be impact players.

Of course, Neal could go for a low-cost, short term rental like he did last year in acquiring Derrick Lee, and hope it works out as well. If that happens, great. But my guess is he’ll seek someone who can provide a long-term answer for the Buccos (disclaimer: most of my predictions tend to be completely wrong!), who most certainly have finally attained the elusive but highly sought and coveted “financial flexibility” to support a longer term commitment like a Willingham.

UPDATE: Since I posted this Justin Upton rumors are starting to surface. I think that would be a perfect acquisition - he is under control for a few years, he's a multi-dimensional player, and plays strong defense. Would love to see this, though it would be costly.

We’ll know soon what Neal and his team decide to do.  There’s logic to any course. But I do hope they don’t stand pat. The cliché “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” is fine as far as it goes, but complacency is a luxury this team can’t afford.

Go Bucs!  

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