The Pirates may be ahead of us in the standings, and the Brewers are something like 4-83 against them in the last decade, but after playing the Red Sox, I'm glad to head to Pittsburgh. The Pirates are 21-23, still respectable past the one-quarter mark, and they've got a new front office team. Are we witnessing the turning point for the Bucs?
Q: I didn't expect to be in this situation in mid-May, but the Brewers are looking up in the standings at the Pirates. That probably says more about Milwaukee's season so far than Pittsburgh's, but still, you guys are hovering around the .500 mark without a whole lot of obvious reasons why. What has kept the Pirates hanging in there so far?
A: Mostly just good starts by four players: Nate McLouth, Ryan Doumit, Xavier Nady and Jason Bay. These starts are mostly for real, but Doumit is now injured. The Pirates' pitching staff and defense are complete messes and the team doesn't have much depth at any position except outfield. I wouldn't sweat it if I were you -- the Bucs and Brewers will switch places before long.
Q: Sometimes a new manager is better than an experienced manager--just ask any Brewers fan. What's your take on John Russell so far?
A: Well, just about anyone can make Jim Tracy look good. Russell makes a lot of dubious tactical decisions -- he leaves starting pitchers in for too long, he bats Luis Rivas second, and so on. Unlike Tracy, though, Russell has been spot on with the big decisions: Tracy absurdly preferred Nyjer Morgan to McLouth and Ronny Paulino to Doumit, but Russell got those decisions right. How close would the Pirates be to .500 without McLouth and Doumit? Not very. I'm inclined to cut Russell a break for a while. His most important job with the Pirates, at least for the next couple years, will be finding out that the McLouths and Doumits can play, and so far he's done that.
Q: Here's a fun fact, courtesy of Baseball-Reference: the Pirates have the best-hitting outfield in the NL, along with the worst hitting infield. Big contributors are, obviously, Nate McLouth's hot start and Brian Bixler's imitation of a blogger in his mother's basement, but there's more to it than that. Do you see this continuing throughout the season, or will guys like LaRoche and Sanchez start hitting like the major leaguers they purportedly are?
A: LaRoche and Sanchez always make me nervous because their successes always seem so precarious. LaRoche has a long swing and tends not only to slump for prolonged periods, but to look completely clueless when he does. Sanchez's struggles to start the year have more to do with his shoulder troubles than anything else, but he always seems to be one awkward throw from a long DL stint. Yes, these guys should play better, but it's far from a foregone conclusion that they actually will.
Q: Presumably, the Pirates are going to find themselves as a "seller" in July. Do you think the new front office will approach trading season differently than their predecessors? What should they spend that time doing?
A: If you're asking whether I think they'll demand ridiculous returns for mediocre players, turn down Ryan Howard for Kris Benson, and settle for Ty Wigginton at the last second, then the answer is no. They haven't made any major trades yet, so I don't know exactly what they'll do, but I assume they'll look for young guys, especially young pitchers. Since new GM Neal Huntington isn't really responsible for the roster as it exists now, I also assume he won't have any problem admitting that the current core of players isn't getting it done. I'll be disappointed if the Pirates don't make at least a couple of major trades, and I assume that Nady, Bay and a reliever or two will all be gone.
Q: The Pirates weren't exactly lauded for picking Daniel Moskos with the 4th overall selection in last year's draft, but that hardly means he's the second coming of Matt Morris. How's he coming along, and how do you feel about that pick, almost a year later?
A: The new front office moved him back to the rotation, where he's been unimpressive so far, pitching in High-A with an ERA in the mid-fours, a bunch of unearned runs, and a mediocre strikeout rate. I can't fault the Pirates for letting him start until he proves he can't, but I saw him start for Clemson almost immediately after he was drafted, and I don't think he has the stuff to succeed there. His breaking ball was pedestrian and his fastball topped out at 92 or so. It was just an inexplicable, terrible pick.