1. This team has no plan. And if this team has a plan, it isn't working. As a result, it's hard to decide what to do with this team. I've written before about how most of the offense will be able to depart after the 2009 season. So do you push in all your chips in preparation for 2009, when most of the best hitters (oxymoronic? sure) will leave as free agents, but most of the best pitchers will still be around for a couple years? Or do you rebuild again?
2. The Pirates' major-league performance has been worse than expected, but its minor-league system has done better than expected. Jason Bay, Adam LaRoche, Ronny Paulino, Tony Armas and Zach Duke have all been worse than expected. Only Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell and The Pitcher Formerly Known As "B.P." have been much better than expected. I thought the Pirates would be a bad team, capable of 72 wins or so; instead, they're a terrible one, and they'll have to play .500 ball the rest of the way just to reach 72.
At the minor-league level, though, Steve Pearce has been great, Neil Walker, Jamie Romak and Brian Bixler have been good, Jason Delaney has emerged as a legitimate prospect, and the only serious disappointment has been Andrew McCutchen.
These guys are all hitters and most of them are in the high minors, which is interesting, because they force the question of whether 2010 and 2011 will really be so bleak after all. The Pirates will still have all their best starting pitchers then - Ian Snell will probably be pretty expensive, and it's hard to guess what a bunch of twentysomething pitchers will be doing three years down the road, but Snell and Tom Gorzelanny are young and good now and we'll still have them later. Can the Pirates build a major-league offense around the crop of prospects we currently have in the minors?
My guess is no - scouts doubt Pearce, Delaney's already 24, Bixler is low-upside and McCutchen, Walker and Romak are question marks. But it's possible, and we're going to get a plum draft pick next year that could be used on a college hitter to complement the group we already have. So if I'm the GM, I'd like to see whether I should be playing for 2009, which seems to be the strategy we already have and which doesn't really seem to be working, or push the time frame back a year and wait for our offensive prospects.
So one thing I'd do is to promote Pearce and Delaney to Class AAA - they're already 24, so let's see what we've got. (UPDATE: The Bucs actually promoted Pearce today. Good for them.) We'll learn a lot about Pearce and Delaney by seeing how well they can adjust to Class AAA pitching. Then trade Jack Wilson if at all possible - whether the club is playing for 2009 or some point beyond, he's no help in either scenario - and let Bixler start at shortstop for the rest of the year. It's not about whether Bixler or Wilson would be better this year, it's about seeing what we have.
If Pearce, Delaney, and Bixler flopped, then I'd keep the 2009 free agent crowd and see what I could do with them. If Pearce and co. succeeded, I'd start looking to trade Xavier Nady, Adam LaRoche, Jason Bay and Freddy Sanchez in the offseason for players the Pirates can control for a few more years.
3. Wilson, Chris Duffy, Ronny Paulino and Jose Castillo should not be part of any plan beyond this year. Deal them, dump them, whatever - just don't start them.
That's so bad that the Pirates seriously need to ask themselves if they can find free talent that might be better. Fortunately, there are a couple of very easy fixes. First, Bixler can replace Wilson. Second, Russ Branyan or the newly-DFAed Morgan Ensberg can replace Castillo and Matt Kata. Or both can be added, which would give the Pirates a much better bench. Adding them both would cost very little. Both have career OPSes above .800, and Ensberg finished fourth in NL MVP balloting just two years ago. They're both flawed players, but they're so much better than what the Pirates already have.
4. In whatever scenario you choose, you just have to trade relievers right now. The Scott Linebrink deal shows that teams are willing to give up good talent to get relievers. Relievers are unreliable and you can't count on them to perform well for you one year in the future, much less two or three. The Pirates need to trade Damaso Marte, Shawn Chacon and Salomon Torres, and they need to do it now.