Earlier this week, I listed five things that went wrong for the Pirates this year, a list that one blogger compared to "Five Things That Went Wrong For Custer At Little Bighorn." In the interest of balance, here's a list of five things that went right. While this list was a lot trickier to make, there were a few positives this year, beginning with the Bucs' terrific draft. Here they are.
1. Dynamite draft. The Pirates grabbed one of the top high school arms in the history of the draft when they selected Jameson Taillon in the first round, then picked the second-best high school arm in the 2010 draft, Stetson Allie, when he was still available for their second pick. The Bucs then signed both of them, and also doled out big bonuses to a number of later picks. The Pirates finished second only to the Nationals in draft spending, and have spent more over the past three years than any other team. If you're a fan watching the Pirates lose 100+ games at the major-league level this year, that might be cold comfort, but the draft is the single most efficient place for a team in the Pirates' situation to get better. Next year, Taillon and Allie will hopefully be throwing their 98 MPH fastballs for the West Virginia Power; in four years or so, they could be throwing them in the majors.
2. A big Latin signing. When the Pirates failed to sign hotshot Latin American infielder Miguel Sano last year, Pirates fans gnashed their teeth. Their criticisms of the Pirates' management for failing to sign Sano specifically were misplaced - that Sano is not a Pirate appears to say more about Sano's agent's petulant behavior than about the Bucs. But there was a broader problem, which was that the Pirates' front office hadn't yet signed a big-ticket player in Latin America despite spending millions on a new academy in the Dominican. Sano was hardly the only player to sign for a seven-figure bonus last year, and yet the Pirates didn't sign any of the others, either. Latin American talent comes cheap compared to big-league free agents, so the Bucs need to be one of baseball's top spenders there. This year, they finally made their first big splash by signing 16-year-old Mexican pitcher Luis Heredia to a $2.6 million bonus. Heredia's upside is tremendous, and he joins Taillon and Allie near the top of the list of Bucs prospects.
3. Thanks, Dodgers! Pirates general manager Neal Huntington has a pattern of trading for talented players who other organizations have tired of, and often, as in the cases of Andy LaRoche, Craig Hansen, Jeff Clement, and others, those trades haven't worked. In July, though, he swung a similar trade that has worked brilliantly so far, getting pitcher James McDonald (and minor-league outfielder Andrew Lambo, a good prospect in his own right) from the Dodgers for three months of Octavio Dotel. McDonald never found a consistent role with the Dodgers, but he arrived in Pittsburgh throwing 96 MPH fastballs and filthy breaking pitches, and he currently looks like the closest thing the Pirates have to an ace. (If he can become a bit more efficient and pitch deeper into games, he could actually become one.) The Dodgers, meanwhile, ended up trading Dotel to the Rockies for a player to be named later.
4. Neil Walker grows up. Last summer, Walker was on track to become a minor league journeyman after struggling in Class AAA for the second consecutive year. I buried him at No. 26 on my list of the Pirates' Top 30 prospects, beneath luminaries like Quincy Latimore, Josh Harrison and Ron Uviedo. By late summer, the biggest splash he'd made in the press came when he accused the Pirates' front office of not taking him seriously because he'd been drafted by previous general manager Dave Littlefield. That was ridiculous - he simply hadn't earned an opportunity, and the Pirates could never be accused of failing to give a fair shake to Andrew McCutchen, for example, who also was drafted by Littlefield.
Beginning last August, though, Walker suddenly became a different player. His OPS at Indianapolis that month was more than 300 points higher than it had been in the two previous months. After being sent back to Indy to start 2010, he proved that wasn't a fluke, batting .321 in 43 games. And after being promoted to the big leagues, he kept hitting. Walker is striking out about three times as much as he's walked, which suggests that the league might catch up with him a bit next year, but he should still be an asset as a starting infielder. That's much more than I thought I'd be a year and a half ago.
5. The emergence of Jose Tabata. Tabata has had a strange career. With the exception of 2008, when he struggled his way through Class AA in the Yankees' system before posting good numbers for the Bucs' AA team in Altoona, Tabata has basically had the same raw stat line every year: an average around .300, an on-base percentage of about .360, and middling power. This means he's been getting better, since he's been putting up these same numbers at more difficult levels each year. This season he made his major-league debut at the age of 21 (if you believe his listed age, and at this point there's no good reason not to) and continued hitting .300, with great defense and good speed. That's excellent for a 21-year-old, so here's hoping he develops some power as he matures. We're not used to thinking about Tabata as a potential star, but maybe we should start - players who contribute in the majors at his age are rare.