The Pirates' season hasn't gone well so far, but what, specifically, is wrong? And how can they improve?
OPS: .695, 15th in MLB
Principals: Humberto Cota, Dave Ross
Pirates catchers have been about average offensively and probably above average defensively. Humberto Cota's play has been good enough to be problematic: he's a perfectly good player, so the Pirates, a risk-averse organization, will be slow to let higher-upside players like Ryan Doumit and possibly Ronny Paulino overtake him. Doumit is out of options at the end of the year, so the Pirates had better figure this situation out. If they have some luck and play their cards right, the Bucs can start either Doumit (if he remains healthy) or Paulino and trade the other for a prospect who plays another position. Cota will be a perfect insurance policy and backup.
OPS: .816, 14th in MLB
Principal: Daryle Ward
Ward is another player who could turn out to be problematic for the Pirates. He's okay for now, but the Pirates shouldn't hesitate to replace him if they can find someone young and talented, or if Brad Eldred suddenly figures out how to hit AAA pitching.
OPS: .713, 23rd in MLB
Principal: Jose Castillo
This isn't as bad as that OPS rank looks. Ten points higher would've put Castillo and company in the middle of the pack, and Castillo's defense this year has been exciting. The Pirates can do little here but wait this situation out. It's too bad they had Castillo skip AAA - now he'll likely become an asset just as he hits arbitration.
OPS: .638, 24th in MLB
Principal: Jack Wilson
Wilson is having the sort of season that just kills the hopes of a contending team. The Pirates gave Wilson a two-year, $8 million contract during the offseason, hoping he'd hold the gains he made on offense in 2004. At my old blog, I warned against depending on Wilson, but ultimately made a tentative leap onto the bandwagon after I came to the conclusion that his power spike was for real. Now it looks like my initial doubts were right. Jack's defense is fine, but it's almost impossible to make up for hitting this bad. Worse, there's little the Pirates can do but leave him there and try to help him get better.
OPS: .804, 15th in MLB
Principals: Freddy Sanchez, Rob Mackowiak, Ty Wigginton, Bobby Hill
That OPS is artifically high because Mackowiak has posted a 1.120 OPS playing third, while hitting .812 overall. The fact is that third base is a mess. Sanchez is a fun player to have and would be a credible short-term starter in the middle infield, but he doesn't hit nearly enough to play third. Wigginton and Hill aren't serious answers there, either. Yurendell DeCaster has a .924 OPS at AAA and has Jose Bautista playing well behind him at AA. Mackowiak can play elsewhere, so the Pirates should view this mess as an opportunity to see what DeCaster can do. They have little to lose and, potentially, a lot to gain from doing so.
OPS: .984, 1st in MLB
Principal: Jason Bay
Yeah, that's first in the majors. You know what? Jason Bay rules. It makes me feel good to be able to say something unambiguously, enthusiastically positive. Craig Wilson and Mike Restovich have also hit well in handfuls of at bats in left.
OPS: .672, 26th in MLB
Principals: Tike Redman, Mackowiak, Bay
This OPS is artificially low - Mackowiak has posted a .536 OPS here. There's no good reason to think this represents a trend, so he's probably the best option here until Nate McLouth or Chris Duffy start making a bit more noise in AAA. The Bucs need to be on the lookout for an upgrade here.
OPS: .832, 11th in MLB
Matt Lawton has been surprsingly decent here, and he might fetch something nice in a trade. Craig Wilson will probably slightly improve the Pirates' numbers here once Lawton's gone. Lawton gets no points for his defense, however.
ERA: 4.42, 17th in MLB
Principals: Mark Redman, Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, Dave Williams, Oliver Perez
Redman, Fogg and Williams have all been a bit better than expected, but Perez' implosion has been deafening. The Pirates can afford to ship out a starter or two - preferably Redman or Fogg - and let Zach Duke and Ian Snell take over full time. This bunch could be very good in 2006 or 2007 if Perez gets himself straightened out and even half the Pirates' good young pitchers (Duke, Snell, Sean Burnett, Paul Maholm, Tom Gorzelanny) end up helping. Either way, the Pirates shouldn't be too attached to Redman or Fogg.
ERA: 4.15, 15th in MLB
Principals: Rick White, Salomon Torres, Ryan Vogelsong, Brian Meadows, Jose Mesa, Mike Gonzalez, John Grabow
The Pirates bullpen ERA is in the middle of the pack, and they've allowed fewer home runs than any other bullpen, but their K/BB is just 1.38, 29th among big-league pens. Don't be surprised if these guys completely fall apart down the stretch. Look out, especially, for Torres (13Ks, 19 BBs, 3.67 ERA) and White (22Ks, 16BBs, 2.79) to either improve those ratios or tack a run onto their ERAs by the end of the year.
The Pirates' three best relievers so far this year have been Grabow, Gonzalez and White. All three players are making close to the big-league minimum. None of the Pirates' three relievers making $1 million or more - Mesa, Meadows and Torres - have been very good. As a small market team, the Pirates need to be more creative in constructing their bullpen and spend their money elsewhere. The offseason contracts for Torres and Meadows seemed halfway defensible at the time, but the Mesa contract was not, and it should never be a surprise when a non-elite reliever suddenly fails to perform. The Pirates could have helpful relievers in the future in Mike Johnston, Jeff Miller and Cory Stewart, all of whom are currently at AAA. Next year when the subject of Mesa's ridiculous option comes up, the Pirates shouldn't hesitate to trust one of those guys instead. Spend the money on offense.