MLB Insiders: Pittsburgh Pirates

Neil Walker had strong rookie campaign

Perhaps the most peculiar thing about the 2010 Pirates, given that they finished 57-105 for one of the worst seasons in franchise history, is that the last thing any executive would do is blow them up.

Not completely, anyway.

Half of the everyday lineup -- the top half of the order, actually -- is made up of young, well-performing players who still are under the team's control for at least five more years. That would be Andrew McCutchen and rookies Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez. All of them not only performed above the league average at their respective positions, particularly impressive for young players.

For all of the team's other shortcomings, and they are significant, that is a good base, possibly the best the organization has had in several years.

One challenge will be trying to address glaring needs for pitching, defense and more hitting while not deviating from the long-term plan of producing talent internally, and while not being able to spend much money. The Pirates' $48 million payroll was the majors' lowest this season, and it probably will not increase dramatically.

Another challenge will be hiring a new manager.

The Pirates fired John Russell on the morning of Oct. 4, the day after the season ended, and began a process that general manager Neal Huntington -- who learned that same week that he would be retained -- promised would be an exhaustive one.

Russell had his positive traits, including consistently getting a young group to play hard, and he led the team to a modestly respectable 17-22 finish. But he lacked visible fire, and that might have reflected in the team's incredible 17-64 road record, as the Pirates looked as if they had no confidence anywhere outside of Pittsburgh. Developing a bolder attitude will be important.

But finding more talent will be far more important. And finding it in the bulk the Pirates need will not be easy.

NOTES, QUOTES

--The Pirates had interviewed a potpourri of managerial candidates by mid-October: Ken Macha, recently fired as the Milwaukee Brewers' manager; John Gibbons, the former Toronto Blue Jays manager; Eric Wedge, former manager of the Cleveland Indians; Dale Sveum, a former Pirates player and minor league manager; Bo Porter, a former coach with the Florida Marlins; and Jeff Banister, a member of the Pirates' minor league staff.

--3B Pedro Alvarez, the National League Player of the Week for Sept. 20-26, had been going hard after a second consecutive award by going 11-for-25 (.440) with three home runs and eight RBI in the final week. An 11-game hitting streak ended Oct. 2, and a slightly hyperextended right knee kept him out of the lineup for the season finale the next day.

--LF Jose Tabata finished strong, as his 14-game hitting streak that ended Oct. 2 was second only to 2B Neil Walker's 18-gamer as the Pirates' longest. Together, Tabata (.302) and 2B Neil Walker (.298) just missed becoming the team's first rookie duo to finish at .300 or better since Jimmy Williams and Ginger Beaumont in 1899.

--RHP Joel Hanrahan, who might have set himself up as the closer for next year with a solid second half after the Octavio Dotel trade, had 100 strikeouts, one of four relievers in the majors with that many and only two behind LHP Paul Maholm -- a starter -- for the staff lead. Hanrahan and RHP Evan Meek are the Pirates' two closer options for next year.

--1B Garrett Jones had 21 home runs and 86 RBI, generally considered decent production for a corner position player, but management has openly stated that it will try to find a platoon partner for him. It would not necessarily have to be at first base, as Jones also is a capable right fielder.

--3B Andy LaRoche, C Jason Jaramillo, RF Lastings Milledge, RHP Sean Gallagher, RHP Charlie Morton and LHP Justin Thomas will be participating in winter ball, GM Neal Huntington said. The Pirates have strongly advised their younger players, in particular, to rest after their first extended seasons, and that includes LF Jose Tabata, who had hoped to play in his native Venezuela.

BY THE NUMBERS: 105 -- The Pirates' loss total in 2010, third most in the franchise's 124-year history. It was the team's highest figure since a 42-112 season in 1952.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "Really, we look forward to the day we start picking 28th and 30th." -- GM Neal Huntington, after securing the No. 1 overall pick in the 2011 draft, this after picking second twice and fourth once in his first three years.

ROSTER REPORT

The Pirates have grave needs at starting pitching and middle relief, evidenced by some of the worst statistics in baseball. They also will need to bolster the bottom half of the lineup, even if that means piecing together platoons.

BIGGEST NEEDS: If the Pirates could choose only three players to add, all would be starting pitchers. RHP James McDonald, LHP Paul Maholm and RHP Ross Ohlendorf are the only things close to locks, and depth in the high minors is negligible. One big right-handed bat also would be welcome, preferably at first base or right field.

FREE AGENTS: RHP Chan Ho Park. He probably will hook up with another team, assuming he wishes to keep pitching at age 39 next year.

ARBITRATION-ELIGIBLE: LHP Zach Duke, LHP Wil Ledezma, RHP Ross Ohlendorf, RHP Jeff Karstens, RHP Joel Hanrahan, SS Ronny Cedeno, 3B Andy LaRoche, RF Lastings Milledge, 2B/RF Delwyn Young.

Ohlendorf, Hanrahan and Cedeno are locks to be tendered, Karstens and Milledge likely. Duke will be the biggest name to be non-tendered, in all likelihood.

IN LIMBO: C Ryan Doumit and C Chris Snyder would make for a nearly $12 million tandem behind the plate, which is far more than what the Pirates would want to commit to catching. Management favored Snyder down the stretch, despite his .208 average, so expect Doumit to be shopped for a trade.

MEDICAL WATCH:

--1B Jeff Clement (reconstructive left knee surgery in September 2010) should be ready for baseball-type activity by November. He is expected to be fully ready for spring training.

--1B Steve Pearce (reconstructive left knee surgery in August 2010) should be ready for spring training.

--RHP Jose Ascanio (arthroscopic right shoulder surgery in October 2009) should compete for a bullpen spot in spring training. His comeback was slowed in 2010 by a bruised right hand.

--RHP Kevin Hart (right shoulder surgery in May 2010) should be ready for spring training.

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