I dabble in advanced baseball statistics but really I don’t know a whole lot about them. I’m sure some where out there are some numbers that can quantify just how much the Pirates have improved as an organization but I’m not looking at that here. I have four points that will show subjectively that the organization is better off than it was just a few short years ago. To me the four points I will cover are very good indicators that the Pirates sit in a much better place but for the sake of discussion I will outline the four and compare them to how the Pirates were just a few years ago.
1.) The release of Josh Rodriguez
Rodriguez profiles very similarly to former Pirate prospects like James Negrych and Brian Friday. All 3 of these players are middle infielders who have shown success in the upper minors but whose major league impact is likely limited. Even those these players are very similar their roles with the Pirates could not be more different. As we can see by the release of Rodriguez the Pirates are to the point where they have little to no need for a player of his caliber. As for Negrych and Friday when they were in a similar position to Rodriguez they were viewed as potential candidates to eventually replace Akinori Iwamura at second base. In only two short years the Pirates have stockpiled enough depth that players they once thought of as a potential major league starter are now expendable. Now don’t get me wrong I am not suggesting that either Friday or Negrych were consider top prospects but both were viewed as guys who could potentially make an impact in the majors.
2.) The trades of decent prospects
Some Pirate fans wonder when the Pirates will have the prospect depth to go out and trade some of the surplus to help the major league team. Well I have news for that time is now. In just the last year the Pirates have traded Aaron Baker, Brooks Pounders and Diego Moreno to help bolster the major league team. None of these are top prospects but they aren’t just minor league filler either. For example look at what Aaron Baker did last season as a 23 year old in A+ ball (that is slightly old but not outrageous): .293/.364/.481. That is a very solid line going along with 17 home runs. In the past Baker could have very well been the Pirates best 1B prospect. Pounders was taken in the second round of the 2009 draft and has played well since turning pro. Last season in 66 IP Pounders posted a 3.68 ERA, 1.136 WHIP and 9.8 K/9. He also showed good command with a 1.9 BB/9. Pounders doesn’t have over powering stuff with his fastball sitting in the low 90s but he has the look of a good relief prospect. Moreno is a prospect who is a little old for the level he has played in but nonethless he has still put up very solid numbers. In limited action in AA Moreno has a strike out rate of 12.5 K/9. A few years ago Moreno would have been viewed as a closer of the future and Pounders an intriguing arm to watch going forward. Now they have been traded away to help the major league club and their loss has barely been felt.
3.) The Juan Cruz/ 40 man roster issue
Juan Cruz has made the Pirates 25 man roster and as a result the Pirates need to remove someone from the 40 man roster to make room for him. Usually this process is done by looking at the bottom 5 players or so on your roster and seeing who is the least necessary. When looking at the Pirates roster and considering the additon of Cruz two names jump put: Daniel McCutchen and Duke Welker. These players aren’t great by any stretch but a few years ago there is no way they would have been viewed as the bottom of the 40 man roster. McCutchen is coming off a good season in relief and just two or three short years ago would have probably been ensured a spot in the bullpen but now it seems highly likely he won’t even keep a 40 man spot. As for Welker he has struggled in the minors as a starter but has shown good signs since being converted to relief. Welker is a very good relief prospect, I would probably say even above the level of Pounders and Moreno. It is quite possible the Pirates in the past few years would view him as a potential replacement to Hanrahan. Currently thought there is a good chance he will be released.
All 3 of the points I bring up point to an increase in the Pirates talent level in the minors and on the 40 man roster. The team is improving but it is not any of these three points which drive the point home conclusively. What I think proves this once and for all is my fourth and final point.
4.) My answer to Will the Pirates finish above 500?
Ever since I really started delving into the Pirates (I’ve been a fan since 97 or so but an extreme fan since 04) I get the question will the Pirates finish above 500 at least several times every offseason. My answer up until this season has always been a resounding, “No, not this year”. I could see no way possible the team could finish above 500 and in fact I would usually add something like maybe if everything breaks right the Pirates could finish with 75 wins. This season though my answer is different; it isn’t yes but its not as strong in its conviction. My answer this season has been, “No, I don’t think so”. Those four little words, “I don’t think so” make a lot of difference. If things break right I tell people I could see this team winning 85 games. The simple fact that I am not just able to say No without adding a disclaimer to my answer is all the proof I need to show me that this team is improving. Slowly, yes but improving no doubt.
Don’t get me wrong the Pirates aren’t where they need to be. Ultimately they need to get to a point where my answer turns to something like they have a shot, or its 50/50, yes, I think they will or yes, no doubt. Or better yet they need to get to a point where that question is no longer asked. Its a long way to go no doubt but for the first time in a long time the Pirates are headed in the right direction.