The Pirates won 67 games this year. Even in the weak NL Central, they are a long way from contending. Even with Jason Bay, the Pirates' offense is hideous - they finished 29th in baseball in runs scored this year. Worse, this offense has very little upside.
At catcher, it is unlikely that Ronny Paulino will end up being much better than he was in 2006 - he may show some more power, but his batting average is likely to come down.
First base and right field are still a mess - Ryan Doumit will probably be better than he was in 2006, but, even if he can stay healthy, it's unlikely he'll be an above-average hitter for a corner player. Xavier Nady is, at best, a cipher.
In the rest of the infield, Freddy Sanchez will probably be a solid hitter, but since he's unlikely to bat .344 again, he probably won't be as good in the near future as he was in 2006. Jack Wilson is as good a bet to not hit as any regular NL player this side of Adam Everett. The Pirates' best hopes of getting more offense from their infield depend on somebody improving upon Jose Castillo's awful 2006 line, whether it's Jose Bautista or Castillo himself.
In the outfield, Bay is already performing at an elite level. As a hitter, Chris Duffy is, well, a very good defender. He's not a good hitter and he's certainly not the sort of hitter who can turn this team around even if something clicks for him.
The current group of hitters the Pirates have is unlikely to get much better. Another problem is that there's very little help on the way. The only high-upside offensive players the Pirates have above Class A are Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker and possibly Brad Eldred and Brent Lillibridge. It would be unwise to count on Eldred or Lillibridge for anything, though, and of McCutchen and Walker, the Pirates can count on getting maybe one productive player. If that's McCutchen, for example, he's probably not going to be a good big-league regular until the middle of 2008 or so.
Bay becomes a free agent after the 2009 season. I can see two possible scenarios in which the Pirates become a contending team before then. You'll note that both of them involve a lot of things going right.
SCENARIO #1: The Pirates' young pitching gels, and some combination of Zach Duke, Ian Snell, Tom Gorzelanny and Paul Maholm become the Pirates' Zito, Mulder and Hudson. The Pirates' bullpen thrives.
I don't think this is very likely. The Pirates' young pitchers haven't exactly looked like the Big Three in training so far, and young pitchers who become stars often perform well from the very start of their careers. (Zito and Hudson, for example, were great right off the bat.)
Another problem is that the Pirates are essentially stuck with the group of position players they currently have, and those position players can't play defense. Even if the Pirates do wind up with a Big Three on their hands, they still won't be able to keep runs off the board very well unless the defense improves.
SCENARIO #2: The young pitching gets better and the Pirates make a series of shrewd trades and free-agent acquisitions to shore up their offense.
The Pirates don't have competent management, but if they did, this scenario would be a little more realistic than Scenario #1.
No matter what happens, the Pirates aren't going to contend in 2007, so if they were hoping to make Scenario #2 happen, they'd have to plan for 2008 and 2009. They could trade some relievers and perhaps an infielder for starting players who might be able to help by then. It would be a particularly good idea for the Pirates to trade relievers, since the performance of relievers fluctuates a lot from year to year.
If I were the GM of the Pirates, I might give myself about two months to see if I could make this scenario work. I'd call the Rockies and various contenders to see if I could get potential home run hitters for John Grabow, Mike Gonzalez and the rest of my relievers. I'd sell Salomon Torres to the highest bidder. I'd see if I could get someone to trade me real prospects for Wilson.
My sense is that this probably would not work, which is why I'd only allow myself a couple months of swift, decisive action to see what I could do. If, after a couple months, I was happy with the results, I'd save my money in 2007, aim to restock the bullpen for 2008 by trying out as many of the Pirates' okay-ish young relievers as possible, then make a big splash in the 2007-2008 offseason by getting a real free agent to fill a position of need. (There will be quite a lot of good stuff available in free agency then.)
Again, this plan would probably not work. If it had failed after a few months, though, the Pirates wouldn't really be much worse off than they are now.
The real danger is in pretending it's going to work if it isn't, and letting it go on too long. If the Pirates aim to contend in 2008 and 2009 and they fail, they're doomed to several more years of losing seasons, because there's very little left in the farm system. In the meantime, none of the players they have now are likely to be worth more then.
My point is that the Pirates stand at a crossroads now because their farm system is in very bad shape. The well of Mickey White-drafted talent has run dry. They need to decide where they want the franchise to go in the coming years.
Given all the unlikelihoods involved in both scenarios for success, I think we're nearing the time to admit that this team just isn't going anywhere. Therefore, if dramatic action can't be taken to fix this franchise immediately, I would look to trade Jason Bay.
This may sound crazy to you, but consider that Bay only has three more years left with the Bucs before he becomes a free agent. When Brian Giles was traded for Oliver Perez and Bay, Giles had a little less than two and a half years left before free agency.
Giles was able to command the likes of Bay and Perez not only because he was a great player, but because he had so much time left on a reasonable contract before he reached free agency. If the Pirates wait another year or two with Bay, they won't be able to get as much for him.
Trading Bay, and getting a good return for him, is the Pirates' best hope of restocking this franchise for the future and building a real team in Pittsburgh.
There is another good reason to trade Bay now, and it's that this offseason's crop of free agents isn't so hot. Most of the best hitters available, including Frank Thomas, Barry Bonds, Moises Alou, Gary Sheffield, Jim Edmonds and Nomar Garciaparra, are either old or perpetually injured or both. The only very good free agent hitter who's in his prime and doesn't have injury problems is Carlos Lee, and Bay is younger and better.
Now, let's say there's a franchise out there that missed the playoffs this year because most of its corner players and DH's couldn't hit. Let's say this franchise had an excellent farm-system that brimmed with star-quality players. Let's say that the franchise had an owner with a knack for making big-time offseason acquisitions. And let's say that owner promised a big-time offensive acquisition this offseason.
That franchise is the Los Angeles Angels. I can't imagine a better trading partner for the Pirates.
It's painful to admit that the Pirates should trade their best player because they're going nowhere, but that doesn't mean it isn't the right thing to do.