That this post even needs to be written speaks volumes about where the Pirates are right now. But despite the Bucs' spectacular collapse since the trades, I think it's far too early to worry, as many of you have, about losing 110 games next year. It's true that the Pirates' play over the last month would put them on pace for far worse than a 110-loss season. But that doesn't mean a 110-loss season will actually happen. A 110-loss team would be among the worst teams in modern baseball history. In the last 40 years, only two teams, the 2003 Tigers and the 2004 Diamondbacks, have lost as many as 110 games in a season, which means that if the Pirates lost 110, they would have to be considered one of the worst teams in modern baseball history. I think there is plenty of evidence that shows that they are bad. I don't think there is nearly enough to show that they are historically bad.
The irony here is that, way back in 2007, I myself was pointing out that the 2010 Pirates were going to be spectacularly bad. I even suggested what some of you are now saying--that they could lose 110 games. Most of the core players on that 2007 team--Jason Bay, Adam LaRoche, Freddy Sanchez, Jose Castillo, Xavier Nady, Salomon Torres--were scheduled to become free agents after 2009, and Jack Wilson had an expensive 2010 option. In addition, they had one of the worst general managers in the history of baseball at the helm and next to nothing in the farm system. That the Bucs would be quite awful in 2010 has been obvious for a long time now, and frankly Neal Huntington bears very little responsibility for it. In 2007, it looked like a perfect storm of a terrible big-league team, no prospects and inept management was brewing, and I think it was maybe only a little hyperbolic to write that a 110-loss campaign in 2010 was likely.
The reason I don't think it's likely now is that Huntington has taken enough steps to improve the 2010 situation that I think we can remove "historically bad" from the set of likely possibilities for now.
I realize that's a counterintuitive conclusion, since clearly Huntington's eyes are set at a point well beyond 2010 and the Bucs aren't playing very well right now. But without Huntington there would be no Ross Ohlendorf or Daniel McCutchen, who were acquired in the Nady deal. There would be no Charlie Morton, since the Pirates under Littlefield would not allow Nate McLouth to start and therefore to acquire value on the trade market. It's quite possible Littlefield would have started Nyjer Morgan in 2009, but back in mid-2007 his breakout would have been extremely hard to foresee (since Morgan hadn't even made his major league debut at that point), and trading him for Lastings Milledge and Joel Hanrahan would have been even harder to foresee. Without Huntington the Pirates probably still would have had Ian Snell, but they wouldn't have Ronny Cedeno or Jeff Clement. Those guys--Ohlendorf, Morton, Milledge, Hanrahan, Cedeno, Clement--are all major league players. Maybe not great ones, in some cases, but certainly useful ones, and one characteristic of 110-loss teams is that they have very few useful players.
Also, a number of decent prospects--Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, Brad Lincoln, Chase D'Arnaud, Rudy Owens, Ron Uviedo, Jeff Locke, Tim Alderson--will be either in the high minors or on the verge of arriving there. That may sound like a trivial point, but actually it isn't. 110-loss seasons can be avoided simply by having a storehouse of players who might be able to fill in competently.
Now, maybe Littlefield would have traded Bay and some of the other core players, too. I doubted that at the time, though, because doing so would have meant admitting that he basically had nothing after five or six years on the job, and because he was basically acting like 2010 did not exist, as if the Pirates would be contracted before the season started. That was my reason for thinking 110 losses was possible then. Now it appears that Huntington is at least aware that the Pirates will be playing baseball next season. That might not mean much, but it's something.
The most critical point here, though, is that losing 110 games is spectacularly difficult to do. It requires either extreme negligence or a combination of negligence and bad luck. Merely being a very poor team, which I agree the Pirates probably will be, simply does not get the job done. Let's take the two teams that lost 110, for example.
The 2004 Diamondbacks reached 110 losses through both negligence and luck. Not only did they have the worst offense in the league--an outcome that is surely also a possibility for the 2010 Pirates--but they really had no starting rotation after Randy Johnson (who was brilliant) and Brandon Webb. The five pitchers who had the most starts for them were Casey Fossum, Steve Sparks, Casey Daigle, Edgar Gonzalez, and Lance Cormier, and all of those guys had ERAs over six. Arizona finished 27th in the majors in ERA, and one of the three teams that fared worse was the Rockies. And the Diamondbacks still only got to 110 through bad luck--their Pythagorean record was "only" 54-108.
The 2010 Bucs really don't even belong in the same conversation with the '03 Tigers, who lost 119 games. The Tigers only had one pitcher throw more than 20 innings with an ERA below 4.50; the '09 Pirates, by comparison, have seven pitchers currently in their organization who have done that this year. The Tigers basically had one good hitter (Dmitri Young), and the lower part of their lineup and their bench were filled with guys (Brandon Inge, Warren Morris, Ramon Santiago, Shane Halter, Gene Kingsale, Omar Infante, Matt Walbeck, Andres Torres) who just didn't belong in the majors. It wasn't a case of a team merely being bad; it was a case of a team simply not taking the steps necessary to ensure that there was a real team on the field.
When I say that the Pirates are unlikely to lose 110 games next year, I'm not paying the Pirates a compliment. I'm just saying these 110-loss prognostications are the result of either over-the-top despair about the Bucs' recent play, or a misunderstanding about how incredibly hard it actually is to lose 110.
Another possibility is that people think you can extrapolate the Bucs' play the last couple months over the course of an entire season. You can't. By way of example, let's look at Brandon Moss. Let's say he's the Bucs' fourth outfielder next year and he starts the season 6-for-60, for a batting average of .100.
Now, we would be perfectly justified to say that Moss is terrible. We already would have been thinking that Moss is pretty terrible, given the way he hit in 2009. And then he went and started 2010 6-for-60. Ugh! Terrible.
But would be justified to say that he will continue to bat .100? Well, no. True, he already batted .100 in his first 60 at bats, but hitting .100 over the long haul is especially hard to do. First of all, we have to consider that Brandon Moss has, at various points, done things that suggest he can be much better than a .100 hitter. For example, in 2009 he's batting .241. Not very good, but way better than .100. Also, he made his way through the minors and got all the way to the big leagues, even briefly joining a good team, the Boston Red Sox. He has some skill, and players with some skill can usually hit better than .100. Even Mario Mendoza hit .215 for his career.
So we'd be justified to be annoyed at Moss' poor start. We'd also be justified to factor that poor start into our guesses about what he might do going forward. But it wouldn't make much sense to predict he'll be a .100 hitter.
Guessing the 2010 Bucs will lose 110 games is like that. Yes, they've been extremely bad since the trades. But they have three downright functional starting pitchers in Ohlendorf, Zach Duke and Paul Maholm, plus Morton, who easily could make his way into that category next year. They have Andrew McCutchen, who's a plain old good player. They have Garrett Jones who, while due for some serious regression next year, has probably staked a pretty reasonable claim that he's at least going to be useful. They have Ryan Doumit, who in 2008 was a force as an offensively-minded catcher. They have Milledge and Hanrahan, who have shown promise since arriving. They have guys like Ronny Cedeno, Andy LaRoche and Jason Jaramillo who, while they're not exactly inspiring, have shown they at least belong in the majors. There's also at least a reasonable chance that Pedro Alvarez is going to burst onto the scene at some point next season and go nuts.
I'm not saying that's much. It isn't. I'm saying it doesn't take much to avoid 110 losses, and that while anything's possible, I think the Pirates have what it takes. Don't take that as wild-eyed optimism, because again, it isn't. I'm only saying that I think the Pirates can avoid a complete disaster season, and the fact that they've actually been a disaster since the trades doesn't really change that.