To put it mildly, the Pirates had a miserable first half. They finished 30-58, thanks in part to the failures of young players like Charlie Morton and Andy LaRoche who could have established themselves as important parts of the Bucs' future. Their highest-paid player, second baseman Akinori Iwamura, is now in the minors. In fact, every member of their 2010 starting infield has lost his job. And a number of key prospects have suffered serious injuries.
There are no easy fixes. But there are five ways the Pirates can be a bit more palatable while still building for the future in the second half.
5. Dump Ryan Church. It's a mystery that Church and his .186 batting average still appear in the lineup every other night. Remember how bad Jeromy Burnitz was in 2006? Well, Burnitz at least batted .230, and with good power. Remeber how bad Randall Simon was in 2004? Well, he batted .194, and he was younger than Church is. Ooh! Remember how bad Chris Stynes was in 2004? Church has been as bad as any of these guys, and to make matters worse, he's taking playing time away from Lastings Milledge, a 25-year-old who has been tearing the cover off the ball since the beginning of June. Enough is enough.
4. Stop worrying so much about "years of control." When Pirates general manager Neal Huntington traded prospect Ron Uviedo for pitcher Dana Eveland a few weeks ago, he cited "years of control" as one reason he made the trade. The idea was that, under Major League Baseball's collective bargaining agreement, teams can keep players at reasonable salaries for their first six years in the big leagues. "Years of control" is often, of course, an extremely important consideration for teams in the Pirates' financial position. But it's possible to take the idea too far. The Pirates were Eveland's fifth organization, and his previous two teams, the Athletics and Blue Jays, had essentially given up on him due to his mediocre performances. What good is the right to "years of control" over a replacement-level pitcher?
Similarly, when the Post-Gazette recently asked Huntington about Church and Milledge, Huntington noted that Church had "the ability to fit beyond this year," implying that the Bucs could exercise their final year of control on Church by taking him to arbitration this offseason. That's ridiculous, obviously - even if we accept that Church has simply slumped so far this year, as opposed to entering a severe decline the way mediocre hitters in their thirties often do, there's no real upside in keeping him around. And in the meantime, we have to put up with Church's 0-fers four times a week. It's senseless - the Pirates' extra year of control over Church has no value.
3. Keep the youngsters on the field. After Pedro Alvarez had struggled in his first 14 games in the big leagues, ESPN's Jerry Crasnick issued a tweet wondering when the Pirates might send him back to the minors. Fortunately, the Pirates didn't listen, and Alvarez found himself in the midst of an eight-game hit streak. The Bucs need to be patient with players like Alvarez if they struggle (and he, in particular, probably will). Alvarez, in particular, has nothing to prove in the minors, and there's no reason not to use a busted season as an excuse to let him sort through any issues he might have with major league pitching (hitting balls down and away, for example). Patience is typically one of the front office's greatest virtues; they don't often make rash decisions. And so we're likely to see a whole lot of Alvarez, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker for the rest of the year. This bodes well for the Pirates' future.
2. Hire a public relations specialist or three. Huntington and team president Frank Coonelly are better at their jobs than most fans think they are. But one area where they need some serious help is in their dealings with the press, as they routinely give their critics ammunition with ill-conceived quotes and lame-brained ideas. In January, for example, when asked about the age of Jose Tabata, who is listed as a 21-year-old, Huntington responded, "He's not 30, let's put it that way," even though he has no specific reason we know of to doubt Tabata's listed age. In February, Coonelly absurdly said that 2010 would begin "a new Pirates dynasty." In June, Coonelly angered just about everyone who follows the team by revealing that he had given Huntington and manager John Russell contract extensions months before, but hadn't told anyone about it. And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Coonelly and Huntington have it bad enough trying to break a 17-year losing streak, but they're making the job even harder by stoking the anger of the large pitchfork-carrying portion of the Pirates' fanbase.
1. Sign Jameson Taillon. The single most important thing the Bucs can do right now is to add elite talent to the system. As Wilbur Miller pointed out a few months back, Huntington and co. have done a great job adding second-tier prospects but, with the exception of Pedro Alvarez, they've missed out on the real elite talents, guys like Miguel Sano and unsigned 2008 second-rounder Tanner Scheppers. This year they drafted two such talents in first-rounder Jameson Taillon and second-rounder Stetson Allie. They need to sign both, along with several of the best players they picked in the late rounds. Adding Luis Heredia, a talented 15-year-old Mexican pitcher with whom the Pirates have been connected, would also be a big help.