The Pirates' 18th consecutive losing season is now nearly (mercifully?) over. There's lots of blame to go around for what will be a 100-loss season (including to some people who are now long gone, like former GM Dave Littlefield, who jerry-rigged the 2010 Bucs for failure by ignoring the farm system and building the team around a core that was set to leave after 2009). Here are the worst, most unwatchable developments for the Bucs this year. Within the next few days, I'll post a list of the top five things that went right - and yes, there were at least five.
1. Reclamation Project FAIL. Many of the players acquired in the Pirates' controversial trades in the past couple of years have been reclamation projects - players with obvious talent who had fallen out of favor or failed to find opportunities with their old teams. Entering the season, the Pirates had reason to hope these players would cement future roles with the team or even develop into minor stars. Well, there don't appear to be any stars among the quintet of Ross Ohlendorf, Lastings Milledge, Jeff Clement, Charlie Morton and Andy LaRoche, and the only one who has a firm hold on a starting job next year is Ohlendorf, who pitched much better than his 1-11 record suggests. Milledge wasn't horrible, but he showed little power, and there's at least some chance the Pirates will non-tender him after the season. Clement began the year as the Bucs' starting first baseman, but quickly played his way out of the lineup. Morton was a complete disaster, thanks in part to a unique talent for throwing crushable pitches in important situations. And after a season in which LaRoche completely lost his ability to hit with authority, he's so stuck to the Pirates' bench that the team's budget for SuperGlue must run into the thousands.
2. The defense. The Bucs haven't exactly had a dynamite pitching staff, but many of the perceived failures of the pitchers were actually the fault of the defense, which was the worst in baseball at turning balls into play into outs. Groundball-causing finesse pitchers like Paul Maholm and Zach Duke depend heavily upon their defenses, but lead gloves like Akinori Iwamura, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Ryan Doumit and (if you believe the numbers) Andrew McCutchen proved to be terrible fits. Granted, there are some mitigating factors here, and reasons the defense might improve somewhat in the next year or two: Walker was learning a new position, Alvarez probably won't be at third base long, and McCutchen plainly has the tools to be a good defender. In the meantime, though, the 2010 defense was a spectacular failure.
3. Busts at the bat. The Pirates' 2010 offense has been terrible; only the Seattle Mariners' was clearly worse, and the Bucs' offense was among the worst in the majors in most key offensive categories. Most of the Pirates' current starting eight, however, have at least hit passably, and most of the heavy stinking was done by bench players and players who quickly lost starting jobs. Look at the Bucs' OPS+ figures this year, for example - 100 is average, and the key starters at every position except shortstop are pretty close to 100. The really bad hitters were Akinori Iwamura, Ryan Church and Bobby Crosby, who are now gone, and Andy LaRoche, Jeff Clement and Jason Jaramillo, who have played their way out of favor.
4. Akinori Iwamura. I've already mentioned him in two previous bullets, but Aki really deserves his own. The Pirates' highest-paid player showed up for camp visibly overweight and proceeded to stumble his way to a .182 AVG / .292 OBP / .267 SLG line while playing poor defense. His patient approach at the plate actually seemed like a breath of fresh air in the first few days of the season, but a patient approach does no good without the ability to hit, or at least field. Iwamura lost his starting job after the first couple of months, and soon it came out that the Bucs didn't give him a physical before trading for him. Oops! The Pirates eventually optioned him to Indianapolis where, before being designated for assignment and winding up with Oakland, he posted an excellent .404 OBP despite a .264 average. Say this for Iwamura - he still knows how to take a walk. Unfortunately, that's about all he's got left.
5. Injuries on the farm. When the Pirates' minor leaguers were on the field, they mostly played well, as the prospect-laden Altoona Curve's Eastern League championship suggests. Unfortunately, they often couldn't stay on the field. Tony Sanchez and Starling Marte, two top players from what could have been an amazing Bradenton Marauders offense, had their seasons shortened after being hit by pitches, and a third Marauder hitting prospect, Brock Holt, lost most of his season with an MCL injury. A number of pitching prospects, including Victor Black, Quinton Miller, and Brett Lorin, were mostly M.I.A. as well. This was a tough minor-league season for an organization that desperately needs its prospects to succeed.
BONUS: Finance-gate. A few weeks ago, someone leaked some of the Pirates' financial records to the AP. Much of the press then leapt in exactly the wrong direction in attacking owner Bob Nutting for profiting from the team and being unwilling to spend on it. Actually, what the documents showed (which may or may not be a complete picture) is that Nutting does not appear to be taking money from the team (except to pay down debt and pay taxes on profits), and the Pirates' profits have not been exorbitant despite their extremely low payroll. If the Pirates are ever going to contend, Nutting will eventually have to raise payroll significantly, but it's hard to see how he'll do that for more than a year or so at a time given how paltry the Pirates' profits appear to be right now. That means the Pirates are essentially doomed to be among baseball's least successful franchises, hoping for an occasional contending season in between long stretches in the wilderness, unless something crazy happens - like baseball getting a salary cap.