I've been thinking about ESPN.com's recent claim that the Pirates are the "most unimproved" team in the National League. Dan H. emailed it to me and Ketcham Bruce put it in a fanpost, but I was planning to ignore it on the grounds that it doesn't tell us much, and it probably only confirms our paranoia that when in doubt, it's easier to just take a cheap shot at the Pirates than, y'know, think hard about stuff. But here it is:
No, the Pirates don't win this award every year. But this does make two in a row. And they did it this year despite massive competition, for reasons we've already discussed. So why did the Pirates nudge out St. Louis? Because they're coming off a 95-loss season and we bet even Bill Mazeroski couldn't name the only two free agents they signed to major league contracts this winter. They were … (the envelope please) none other than Eric Hinske and, ummm, Ramon Vazquez? Yeah. Really. Granted, the Pirates actually started their big roster-reconstruction project last July 31. And GM Neal Huntingdon [sic] certainly seems to be a man with a plan. But this is a team in danger of making very messy history if it rips off its 17th straight losing season. And, as one of our panelists put it, "I think they added more assistant general managers this winter than players." Uh, is that good?
Of course, the big question here is why ESPN.com would expect a rebuilding team like the Pirates to make big free agency splashes in the offseason and whether Jayson Stark would have praised them if they'd had a Dave Littlefield-style offseason marked by the acquisition of familiar-but-washed-up players. It's true that the Pirates could have done a better job taking advantage of favorable conditions this winter by hunting for bigger game on the free agent market, but that's true of many teams, including several for whom that extra free agent could turn them from an also-ran to a contender. In the meantime, it sounds as if Stark would have preferred yet another awkward lunge at a .500 season even if that only, ironically, caused more losing seasons to occur. But I'll put aside that question for another day.
Keith Law, of all people, apparently said yesterday that the Pirates' performance in 2009 may be a bit better than expected, because the other teams are so unimproved. That's a summary of a message board posting summarizing Law's appearance on a radio show, so it's the internet equivalent of a game of telephone, but whether it's what he actually said or not, I think it's true.
If you're a Baseball Prospectus subscriber, check out this article, which lists the key offseason acquisitions and departures for each team in the Central. It's absurd to think that the Pirates are anywhere near the most unimproved team in their own division, let alone the entire league.
The Cubs are clearly the class of the division, but it's not at all clear that they improved this offseason, and the other four teams have either done little or gone backwards. The Brewers have no answer for the losses of C.C. Sabathia and (so far) Ben Sheets. The Astros are replacing Ty Wigginton, who posted a 128 OPS+ for them last year, with Geoff Blum and Aaron Boone, and they've spent all their offseason money on washed-up vets like Jason Michaels and Mike Hampton. The Cardinals added Khalil Greene but have done little else, and with the recent dump of Adam Kennedy, they have no second baseman. And the Reds have basically exchanged one group of ineffectual players (plus Jeremy Affeldt, who's actually pretty good) for another. Worse, they're pretending that a couple of those ineffectual players (Willy Taveras and Ramon Hernandez) can be starters.
In fact, BP writes (and you may want to sit down for this):
The Pirates are the one team in the division that has taken on more talent than it has shed over the winter.
It's true that the Pirates didn't add any difference makers this offseason, but they lost no one of consequence and filled roster spots with guys like Eric Hinske, Ramon Vazquez and new Bucs Dugout fave Jeff Salazar who are good bets to contribute, albeit modestly. They're a better team now than they were at the end of the season, and I'm not sure how anyone could argue that most of the other teams in the Central are, particularly not the Brewers or Astros. The Pirates are still a very bad team, of course, but they should benefit somewhat from the decreased talent level in the Central--the division lost Sabathia, Sheets, Mark DeRosa, Kerry Wood and Wigginton, and the only even modestly talented player it added was Milton Bradley.