Pirates seeking improvement at every level
The question seemed to take Andrew McCutchen by surprise.
McCutchen, the Pirates' top draft pick in 2005, played well enough this summer to rank among the top Rookie of the Year candidates. In a season marked by roster upheaval — including trades that were unpopular among fans and players — McCutchen was a welcome addition.
So, what must McCutchen do to improve in 2010?
"I don't think I should change a thing, really," McCutchen said after a moment's reflection. "I'm pretty pleased with how I've done so far, so there's nothing I need to change."
McCutchen has a point. Next season should be more about improvement than change — not only for McCutchen, but for the Pirates' entire system from the major-league club to the Dominican academy.
"We told them after the trades that this is the group we're going to start to build with, whether it's everybody here or some guys in Triple-A or maybe some guys in Double-A," manager John Russell said. "We have a lot of control over these players. We don't have to worry about free agency. We don't have to worry about that far down the road. We can look within our system and build with that."
This offseason, the Pirates will have just a handful of arbitration-eligible players, including left-hander Zach Duke (who might be rewarded with a multi-year contract), closer Matt Capps and shortstop Ronny Cedeno. Catcher Ryan Doumit and lefty Paul Maholm are already under contract.
The bulk of the 2010 roster features low-tenured, low-salaried players who are four, five or six years away from free-agent eligibility.
"To know some of these guys could be here for a number of years, that is a good feeling," general manager Neal Huntington said. "That doesn't mean there's not going to still be some movement. They still have to go out and earn it. They have to capitalize on the opportunity."
The Pirates' to-do list for McCutchen includes becoming less hesitant to bunt and a bit more aggressive with stolen bases. His positioning and footwork in the outfield have improved, but his throwing needs work.
Other than that?
"Thirty-five homers, a hundred stolen bases ... " Russell said.
McCutchen will open 2010 as the starting center fielder, flanked by Lastings Milledge and Garrett Jones — if Jones is not used at first base. By the end of the season, Jose Tabata probably will be called up to claim one of the corner spots.
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez, the first-round pick in 2008, also is a good bet to debut next year. Huntington indicated Alvarez and Tabata project to be midseason call-ups.
"We're not closing the door to either making the club (out of spring training)," Huntington said. "But the reality is, we still have work to do to refine each of their games in different areas. While we're thrilled about their development, we're still a ways away from them being major-league players."
Since the front office was restructured, the Pirates have brought in more than two dozen players via trades and spent about $18 million on draft bonuses. The organizational depth chart looks dramatically different — younger, yes, but deeper and perhaps more talented — than it did just four years ago.
"Depth can disappear in a hurry, but I think we've got some options, albeit at the lower levels," farm director Kyle Stark said. "I would say our greatest need (in the minors) at this point is impact bats."
The task now for the Pirates is to find out exactly what they have and make it work.
"It's a bright horizon," Russell said, "but there's still a lot of work to do."
Where they stand
Incumbent: Ryan Doumit
Backup: Jason Jaramillo
Top prospect: Robinzon Diaz
On the rise: Tony Sanchez
What to do in 2010: GM Neal Huntington has done an excellent job of restocking this position with good talent in a short period of time. That could make Doumit expendable as trade bait this offseason. Doumit had another injury-plagued season, which casts doubt on whether he'll be here when his contract is up after 2011. Sanchez's arm already is rated as major-league ready by most scouts.
Incumbent: Garrett Jones
Backup: Steve Pearce
Top prospect: Jeff Clement
On the rise: Matt Hague
What to do in 2010: This position could belong to Pedro Alvarez by the end of the season if he remains too heavy to play third base. If Clement, 25, is not yet ready for the majors, this would be a good spot to spend some free-agent dollars.
Incumbent: Delwyn Young
Backup: Ramon Vazquez
Top prospect: Shelby Ford
On the rise: Josh Harrison, Jim Negrych
What to do in 2010: Be patient. If Delwyn Young doesn't develop defensive skills that are at least adequate, it won't be due to lack of effort. Management had high hopes for Ford, but he took a giant step backward in '09. Beyond him, help in the farm system is two or three years away. If Young flunks out, LaRoche could move to second as a stop-gap.
Incumbent: Andy LaRoche
Backup: Neil Walker
Top prospect: Pedro Alvarez
What to do in 2010: Either find success or declare defeat with LaRoche. Because he came at a great cost (Jason Bay), LaRoche is getting an extended chance to prove himself. But 2010 should be the time to decide the outcome, especially if Alvarez is ready.
Incumbent: Ronny Cedeno
Top prospect: Brian Friday
On the rise: Chase d'Arnaud, Jordy Mercer, Jarek Cunningham
What to do in 2010: Keep Cedeno around for a while. He looks to be an upgrade over Jack Wilson and should give Friday, d'Arnaud and Mercer time to develop. Friday and d'Arnaud will play second base in the Arizona Fall League, hinting at a possible position switch.
Incumbents: Lastings Milledge, Andrew McCutchen, Garrett Jones
Backup: Brandon Moss
Top prospects: Jose Tabata, Gorkys Hernandez
On the rise: Robbie Grossman, Starling Marte
What to do in 2010: Find some power. Other than Jones -- whose '09 stats were no fluke, but, don't forget, he will turn 29 next year -- the Pirates must come up with some sluggers. Milledge and Moss didn't show it this year. Tabata has potential, but Hernandez is purely a speed guy. This is another area to put the free-agent budget to use.
Rotation: Paul Maholm, Zach Duke, Ross Ohlendorf, Charlie Morton, Kevin Hart
Top prospects: Jose Ascanio, Brad Lincoln, Tim Alderson, Daniel McCutchen, Eric Hacker, Dan Moskos
On the rise: Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Rudy Owens, Donnie Veal, Zack Von Rosenberg, Nathan Adcock, Colton Cain
What to do in 2010: Find two guys to hold down the 4 and 5 spots. Morton and Hart cannot afford so much inconsistency. Ascanio will be out of options, so he'll get a long look in spring training. Lincoln is fully recovered from Tommy John surgery. Alderson is a very intriguing prospect.
Incumbents: Matt Capps, Jesse Chavez, Evan Meek, Joel Hanrahan
Also in the mix: Tyler Yates, Craig Hansen, Steven Jackson, Jeff Karstens, Phil Dumatrait, Chris Bootcheck
Top prospects: Ramon Auguero, Ron Uviedo
On the rise: Diego Moreno, Mike Dubee, R.J. Rodriguez
What to do in 2010: Scour the free-agent market and come up with a reliable lefty or two. Begin grooming Meek for the closer's job. Hansen and Yates are coming off major injuries, so there's significant doubt about their status.