A thrilling pierogi race -- David Watson/Flickr.com
About two weeks ago or so, I did an interview with Charlie of Bucs Dugout for MVN Outsider. I made a post on Outsider with just a few of the questions and saved the entire interview for Pirate Revolution. So, as promised, here is the interview in its entirety. Enjoy.
Alan: As a pretty educated follower of the Buccos, what were the realistic expectations for the 2008 season? Were you one of the optimistic bunch thinking .500 could be reached or did you keep the bar lowered?
Charlie: I wrote in March that they might well win 67 games, and that's exactly what happened. That didn't take any real clairvoyance on my part; the Pirates have now won 67 or 68 games in each of the past four seasons.
Alan: What went wrong, right for the Pirates in either meeting or falling short of any particular person's expectations?
Charlie: The hitting was better than expected, particularly before the departures of Jason Bay and Xavier Nady; the pitching was worse.
Alan: Where do they go from here? Do the Pirates get worse in 2009 before it all gets better?
Charlie: I'll stick with 67 wins; that seems to work. The losses of Bay and Nady (well, not Nady himself, but the fluke year he had) will sting, but GM Neal Huntington acquired a bunch of pitchers who can be competent starters. There was virtually no rotation depth at the beginning of the 2008 season, but new acquisitions Ross Ohlendorf, Jeff Karstens and Daniel McCutchen address that problem, so the '09 Bucs should be able to avoid some of the really miserable starts they got from the likes of Matt Morris, Yoslan Herrera and John Van Benschoten. They'll also be able to pull the plug more quickly on someone like Tom Gorzelanny who's having a terrible year. A better season from Ian Snell would help, too.
Alan: Is there anything the Tampa Bay Rays have shown/taught you this year that you feel could/should be applied to the Pirates organization (baseball and/or business wise)?
Charlie: Tampa's approach has been to grab as much talent as they could and then try to mold it into a team only when they had enough of it, and that's a strategy the Pirates should emulate. For example, many Pirates fans think that if the Bucs trade Jack Wilson they have to get a shortstop in return, because there really isn't one in the pipeline. That's the wrong approach, since a new shortstop alone isn't going to make the Pirates a competitive team.
Instead, they need to acquire good players, regardless of position. The 2007 Rays were very talented, but their pitchers suffered at the hands of a brutal defense. Because they had a ton of talent and some athletic young players, though, they improved the defense in short order by promoting Evan Longoria, moving some fielders to positions where they were better suited, and acquiring Jason Bartlett (and Matt Garza). The Pirates don't yet have a Longoria or a B.J. Upton, so those sorts of fixes don't exist for them. They have to wait to acquire their Bartlett until they have their Longoria and Upton.
Also, the Pirates need to draft well like the Rays have and take B.J. Upton when the opportunity presents itself (as they finally did this year, with Pedro Alvarez), but that's just common sense.
Alan: Obviously the depth in the starting rotation was a major issue and Che did address that to a point. I'm sure he'll continue to address it with a small signing and a host of spring training invitees. That being said, though, hopes of the rotation rested on the young arms of Snell and Gorzelanny -- of course both had very bad seasons. In your opinion, what was the cause of Snell and Gorzelanny's troubles? Not the same zip on the ball, not throwing inside, not simply throwing strikes, all mental?
Charlie: Jim Tracy worked Gorzelanny very hard down the stretch in 2007 (for no apparent reason other than to save his own job, incidentally), so Gorzelanny's struggles in 2008 weren't a surprise. His velocity was off and his control was awful. There were sporadic reports of shoulder problems throughout the 2008 season, and I'm about 98% certain that sometime during Spring Training, Gorzelanny will admit he spent the entire year pitching hurt. I don't know that for a fact, but it's the only explanation for his struggles that makes much sense.
Snell is a tougher case, because he pitched in 2008 with more or less his usual stuff. There obviously were times when he just didn't hit his spots; you don't rack up 89 walks with pinpoint command. But he also seemed to focus on blowing hitters away with macho displays of velocity rather than just getting them out. The Snell who had success in 2006 and 2007 seemed to go to the mound with a plan; the 2008 version of Snell didn't.
Alan: However, along the same line, Paul Maholm proved himself a reliable starter this year. But most casual fans felt the same way about Snell/Gorz last year. Is there anything different you may see in Paul that would allow him to continue his success, or should those same casual fans fear another plummet from a promising starter?
Charlie: Well, young pitchers are just really unreliable. There's no obvious red flag with Maholm the way there was with Gorzelanny after the 2007 season. One potential problem is that Maholm fared better than you'd expect in 2008, given the Pirates' terrible defense, on batting average on balls in play. The Pirates might be somewhat better on defense in 2009, particularly if Andrew McCutchen gets a lot of playing time. But they still won't be good, so Maholm's BABIP is likely to regress. He should continue to be pretty good, though.
Alan: Along the lines of acquiring talent, no matter the position, like you mention, do you feel Che gets it? I make the notion of the seemingly better moves we've seen out of him compared to Littlefield/Bonifay. Most said the Pirates don't need to trade for an outfielder -- he got Jose Tabata. After drafting Pedro Alvarez and having Neil Walker, he traded for Andy LaRoche. I believe he understands the lack of talent and these moves, plus the draft, show that. Your thoughts on Che and how he's started to acquire the needed talent thus far...
Charlie: I think your examples are good and that, by and large, Huntington does get it. Of course, whether Andy LaRoche or Tabata turn out to be the star players the Pirates so badly need is a different question, but it was encouraging to see Huntington grab the best players he could, regardless of position.
Alan: Two more short questions that continuously sit on the minds of Pirate fans, when will they see McCutchen in center field and how many more years will the organization add to the losing streak?
Charlie: As for the first question, I don't really know. Personally, I'd consider sending McCutchen back to AAA for a couple of months, if only because he didn't dominate the level last year and the Pirates will get to wait a year to start his arbitration clock if they keep him in the minors until midseason. There are still things he can work on down there--a bit more power would be nice.
As for the second question: there are already Pirates fans who have expressed frustration at Huntington and Frank Coonelly for trading star players and not yet building a winner in Pittsburgh, as if it's their fault that Dave Littlefield left them a terrible major league team and an abysmal farm system. The impact of Littlefield's incompetence is hard to exaggerate.
For example: the Pirates' New York-Penn League affiliate in State College was absolutely horrible this year, finishing the season at 18-56. There were screeds all over the internet calling Huntington and Coonelly out because, hey, if a rookie league team didn't perform well after one of their drafts, it had to be their fault, right?
Well, no. As it turned out, there were some pretty prosaic reasons for State College's struggles: the Pirates drafted a bunch of shortstops and third basemen with early picks and had to move some of them up a level, and a couple top picks either didn't sign or signed too late to play. But actually, most of the guys Huntington and Coonelly drafted were fine, if not especially inspiring. The real problem was that the players left over from Littlefield's administration were dreadful, almost to a man. Only a couple of pitchers were helpful in any meaningful way. Some of the Littlefield players were busted former draft picks; others came from a Latin American system that hadn't produced a real prospect in years. Littlefield had been gone for a year, and he still managed to mess up the Pirates' rookie league team.
The point to all this is that there are going to be many times over the next few years when something like this happens. I don't mean to excuse any mistakes Huntington and Coonelly have made or might someday make, only to point out that Littlefield was simply a dreadful GM. He was much worse than most fans probably realize, and I don't think most fans like him very much. He left booby traps like the State College situation that are going to take years to neutralize. It may be three years or so before the Pirates have a fully functional player development system, and a couple years after that for their talent to mature. So I'll guess that they'll break the streak in, say, 2013.
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- 2008 Season Review: Andrew McCutchen
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- Winter Meetings Primer: Hudson and Crede top values on IF; How to assess pitching market; Rumor mill
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