With five wins in 23 games, it's hard to be constructive, but I'll try.
Fantasy time: Kevin McClatchy and Ogden Nutting have sold the Bucs to Mark Cuban. Cuban hires us, Bucs Dugout, as his advisors. After firing Dave Littlefield and Ed Creech and throwing an enormous party in which we exchange exuberant high-fives with thousands of ecstatic Pittsburghers, we wake up hung over, but ready to work. The questions are, what about this team is worth saving? And, realistically, when can the franchise succeed, and how are we going to do it?
I seriously doubt the current group of young players in Pittsburgh can form the core of a playoff team without serious reinforcements - as much as veterans deserve some of the blame for the Bucs' abysmal start, it's probably time to admit that this group of youngsters aren't really going to cut it on their own. I'm certainly not advocating "giving up" on any of them, since a few will probably turn out to be good ballplayers and the Bucs absolutely must have cheap, good ballplayers. I'm just saying this bunch is more like the 1996 Twins, a young team that failed to develop into a contender, than the 2000 Twins, in which the Twins relied on a different group of young players who eventually formed the core of a very good ballclub.
The 1996 Twins got more than 200 at bats or more than 50 innings from 14 players under the age of 28. Of those, Chuck Knoblauch, Matt Lawton, Brad Radke and Eddie Guardado had successful major league careers, but many others fizzled, and the Twins didn't win more than 70 games in a season for several more years. By 2000, though, they'd added another group of youngsters, including A.J. Pierzynski, Corey Koskie, Torii Hunter, Doug Mientkiewicz, David Ortiz, Joe Mays, and Eric Milton, and those players joined Radke, Lawton and Guardado to form the core of a very good team in 2001.
Assuming the Bucs commit to sorting out the talent they have, they're going to find the equivalent of Lawton, Radke and Guardado, and they already have a far better player than the '96 Twins had in Jason Bay. But they're going to need reinforcements.
The farm system is a mess right now, so the pressing question is where those reinforcements are going to come from. But it may not be too late to assemble a winning team in, say, 2011, involving some of the players the Bucs have now. But how should they do it? What should their first steps be? And what should the 2007-2010 teams look like?
(I'm aware that it may seem absurd to be hoping for a winning record in 2011 in the first month of the 2006 season. But you know what's even more absurd? A 5-18 record after thirteen seasons of losing!)
Here are my opinions:
CATCHER: Sort out which of Ryan Doumit and Ronny Paulino can play. Make sure Paulino spends at least a couple months in the majors this year. If that means having Doumit spend a bit of time at some other positions, fine, do it. It's worth it. Just keep in mind that Doumit will have the most value in the long term as a catcher. If both Doumit and Paulino work out, great. Trade one of them. If anyone's stupid enough to offer a shiny trinket for Humberto Cota, take it, and make a minor trade to acquire a Class AAAA-type catcher in case something goes wrong.
FIRST BASE and RIGHT FIELD: If Craig Wilson's agent will return your calls, sign him to a two- or perhaps three-year extension so the offense won't be a complete embarrassment while the Pirates wait for homegrown talent. If the Bucs can sign a nice free agent, and I mean a legitimately good one, to play in the other corner position for a couple years, that would be wonderful. Wait for Sean Casey to come back, then trade him or Jeromy Burnitz for whatever you can get. Eat salary if you have to. In 2003, Burnitz had a hot start but was coming off a terrible year in 2002 in which it looked like his career was over, and the Mets still got Victor Diaz for him.
SECOND BASE: Jose Castillo stays here.
SHORTSTOP: Jack Wilson will be, for better or worse, an immovable object here for a few years.
THIRD BASE: Unless the Joe Randa situation proves totally hopeless, play him part-time until July, then trade him for the best minor-leaguer offered. Play Freddy Sanchez the rest of the time, and live with him for a while after this year unless there's a bargain free agent available. Don't count on much out of Jose Bautista, but if he proves he can hit in Class AAA, give him major league playing time, and don't jerk him around. He's had enough of that.
LEFT FIELD: Jason Bay is the man here.
CENTER FIELD: I have no idea what to do here but hope that either Nate McLouth or Chris Duffy starts to play better. Know that Andrew McCutchen is probably only about two years away.
PITCHING: Give high-profile prospects like Zach Duke, Paul Maholm and Ian Snell at least a half a year, and preferably more, to sort out which of them can play. Be especially patient with Maholm because he hasn't spent much time at Class AAA. Don't be afraid to send him there for a while if things get really bad for him, but don't give up on him. Don't send Snell to Class AAA unless you have a very clear idea of what you want him to work on there. He's already mastered the level, so there's no point. In general, be patient. This may mean some ugly performances of the sort we're getting now, but the Pirates long ago made their bed here. They have to sort though these pitchers. Let Tom Gorzelanny simmer for a while at Class AAA unless someone gets hurt, then show the same patience with him. If all goes well, the Pirates could have three or so cheap, good, reliable starters in 2007 or 2008, which would be a great start. But it won't happen if the Pirates are too impatient.
In the bullpen, begin with the rule of thumb that all but the best relievers are fungible, and behave accordingly. If someone wants to offer a good minor leaguer for a reliever, it's usually wise to take that deal. Actively shop around relievers at the trade deadline, then look for replacements in the form of minor leaguers or non-roster invitees. Do not make any more lengthy commitments to relievers and deal Salomon Torres, if possible, to get his contract off the books.
Spend the money you would've spent on relievers and the usual veteran parade on the draft, and take signability-problem types of players in the later rounds. This year and probably next, take the best player available. In 2008 and 2009, start grabbing college players in the first round if you can, and don't be afraid to spend lavishly on a Stephen Drew or Jered Weaver type of talent. An early-round college draftee in 2008 or 2009 will be about the same age as McCutchen. He would hopefully shoot through the minors and join the Bucs just as McCutchen and maybe Neil Walker are emerging and a couple years before the best of the young pitchers and Bay become too expensive.
Funnel money into Latin America, but understand that it'll take a while for results to arrive.
What do you think?