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2009 in Review: Lynchburg Hillcats

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This is the last in a series of wrapups on the Pirates' minor league affiliates. I'm finishing with Lynchburg because their season lasted longest, ending with them winning the Carolina League championship.

Before we look too deeply into what happened here, a glance at WTM's preview of Lynchburg's season is in order.

The bad news is that they’ll probably be hit hard by the miserable scouting done by Dave Littlefield and his band of bozos. The good news is that they’ll probably open the season with Pedro Alvarez on the roster, although hopefully he won’t be there long. The infield should be in good shape, and not just due to Alvarez, but the rest of the team could be a mess.

Based on the information available at the time, WTM wasn't wrong. The Hillcats looked like a mess everywhere except the infield. But along the way, three things happened: 

1) The Hillcats got much better players than expected, minimizing the effect of the Littlefield/Creech team's "miserable scouting."

Of Lynchburg's rotation, WTM wrote that "Unless the Pirates have some guys I don’t know about stashed away somewhere, I don’t see how Lynchburg is going to get through the year with these starters." Well, the Bucs moved Ronald Uviedo to the rotation from the bullpen, a decision that worked very well. They also acquired Jeff Locke, who pitched much better for the Hillcats than he had earlier that season for the Braves, and Nathan Adcock at midseason. Late in the year, they also added Rudy Owens, who had been having a surprisingly great year for West Virginia, and Owens pitched well down the stretch. Presto, problem solved.

In the bullpen, the Hillcats got Michael Dubee after the Pirates added him in a minor trade, and he quickly emerged as a dominant reliever, striking out 53 batters in 37 innings and posting a 1.45 ERA. And in the lineup, they lost Pedro Alvarez after a couple of months (as expected), but they added Josh Harrison (who admittedly didn't actually play very well), Chase D'Arnaud (who did), Eric Fryer, and, very late in the season, Tony Sanchez and Starling Marte.

The team didn't actually play very well in the second half, posting a 28-42 record, but the losses of Alvarez and Miles Durham, an old-ish outfielder who had produced well for them in the first half, as well as organizational catcher Kris Watts' inevitable return to earth (Watts batted .444 in April) were mitigated by the additions of all these other players. (Fortunately for the Hillcats, some playoff berths in the Carolina League are awarded based purely on first-half play.)

2) A number of players were better than expected.

Throughout much of May and June, Lynchburg's rotation was held together by Matt McSwain, an organizational type who doesn't strike anyone out but nonetheless managed to post a 3.43 ERA in 144 innings. D'Arnaud looked like a decent prospect upon his promotion from West Virginia, but he emerged as a very good one in Lynchburg, adding more power after his promotion.

3) A number of players experienced improvements throughout the year.

The team in general did not improve over the course of the year, but a number of its prospects did. The poster boy for these improvements is pitcher Justin Wilson, the Pirates' 5th-round pick in 2008. The Bucs sent him to Lynchburg at the beginning of the season, an aggressive assignment for a pitcher with no pro experience, and Wilson posted ERAs of 5.00 in April, 7.17 in May, and 7.71 in June. After that, though, he was terrific, posting a 2.89 ERA after the All-Star break. 2008 third-rounder Jordy Mercer had an up-and-down year, but he capped it with a strong August and posted an OPS 85 points higher in the second half than in the first. And, as previously mentioned, Locke, D'Arnaud and Dubee all improved after joining the Hillcats.

Not everything was perfect. Bryan Morris, the top pitcher acquired in the Jason Bay trade, missed time at the beginning of the year with an injury, got suspended later for chewing out an umpire, and never really pitched particularly well at any point. And Alvarez didn't really start hitting until after he was promoted to Altoona. All in all, though, the Hillcats had a very good year for a team that, with the questionable talent pool in the low minors at the beginning of the season, probably should have been pretty bad.