By Wilbur Miller
Now that it’s the first weekend in May, the Pirates are well into their annual ritual of seeing their season go down the tubes before spring turns into summer. What’s ironic this year, given the decision by the team’s new management to stand pat, is the similarity to last year’s bad start.
In 2007, the Pirates were done in early by horrible slumps on the part of Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche, Ronny Paulino and Jack Wilson, as well as a terrible start by the obligatory washed-up veteran starting pitcher, Tony Armas, Jr. This year it’s been Sanchez and LaRoche again, along with Jose Bautista (at least until two days ago), Matt Morris and whatever disaster is occupying shortstop in place of the injured Wilson.
The problem, though, isn’t and wasn’t limited to slumping regulars. The 2007 Pirates were also hurt badly by horrific performances around the edges of the roster. The bullpen was hampered by dismal performances from gas leaks like Jonah Bayliss, Wayback Wasdin and Marty McLeary. The bench was a black hole comprised of the likes of Jose Castillo, Brad Eldred, Don Kelly and Humberto Cota. None of these players played a big role, but they were so bad, so far below even a marginally major league performance level, that the cumulative effect was extremely damaging. It also took Dave Littlefield far too long to replace them with players who had some business in the majors.
Unfortunately, this year’s edition is suffering from the same lack of major league quality players in numerous roster spots. The bench is a nightmare. Here are the OPS figures of the team’s backups (counting Chris Gomez as the shortstop), as of the end of play on May 3:
Ron Paulino: .593
Luis Rivas: .459
Brian Bixler: .494
Doug Mientkiewicz: .538
Nyjer Morgan: .374
If you want an idea of how bad this group is, there are three pitching staffs (Arizona, St. Louis and the Dodgers) outhitting these guys. When you add in the fact that Rivas and Bixler have been miserable defensively–predictably so in Rivas’ case, as the Pirates’ own recently hired statistical analyst could have told them–you have a bench that’s inflicting serious damage on the team.
Neal Huntington can’t be blamed for Jack Wilson’s injury or the fact that Brian Bixler is the team’s only middle infield prospect above the low minors, but he could do better than this. Rivas was a classic mistake. Huntington and John Russell got fooled by a couple good weeks in March from a veteran who’d played his way out of the majors several years earlier and found no interest from other teams, all of which no doubt remembered that there was a reason he’d gotten stuck in AAA. Even Matt Kata, currently toiling at Indianapolis, couldn’t help but be an improvement. Huntington desperately needs to clear the two non-hitting infielders off the roster once Wilson returns, especially now that Gomez has shown that he isn’t any worse at shortstop than Rivas and Bixler. That’s an extremely low bar, but at least Gomez can hit a little. With LaRoche in another dismal slump and not hitting lefties at all, the team needs to locate a right-handed hitter who can give them some occasional relief at firstbase as well as something other than one more automatic out off the bench.
The solution to Morgan’s helplessness is even easier. Kevin Thompson is tearing up AAA pitching. The bench is short on right-handed hitting as it is, so it’s worth giving Thompson a shot.
The bullpen similarly has holes it can’t afford. Rule 5 pick Evan Meek has pitched like . . . a Rule 5 pick. Well, a bad Rule 5 pick. Franquelis Osoria has, incredibly, been even worse than Meek. Huntington’s decision to go with Meek is understandable, since Meek wasn’t supposed to pitch in games that were still in doubt. He’s been forced to do so a couple times, though, because the terrible starting pitching has overtaxed the bullpen. It shouldn’t be that hard even for the Pirates to carry a mopup pitcher, but they can’t afford any other holes in the bullpen. They’re already handicapped by the fact that two of their “good” relievers–Damaso Marte and Tyler Yates–are prone to control meltdowns and can’t be counted on to last longer than a few hitters. That makes Osoria’s poor pitching something the team can’t afford. Osoria’s continued presence on the roster is especially hard to understand given his poor major league track record; there’s a reason he cleared waivers when the Pirates designated him for assignment a little over a year ago. There’s also no reason to think he’s likely to improve, since he has only one pitch and has always had a very low strikeout rate in the majors.
One ironic advantage of being a team that’s clearly going nowhere is that there’s no cost to making frequent changes. Guys like Osoria, Rivas and Morgan have no future in Pittsburgh. There’s no cost to ditching them. A team in a position like the Pirates–woefully short on talent–needs to sort through as many players as possible in order to find the keepers. We’ll learn a lot about Huntington when we see whether he’s willing to cut bait on some of the dismal performers who are damaging the team now, the way he did with Matt Morris.