As spring approaches, baseball fans all across the nation become giddy with anticipation. New acquisitions have us all looking at our respective teams and wonder what may be.
Still, there are inevitabilities in every season.
There is at least one guy out there who, looked at as a random scrub today, will be a star in the coming months. A minor league player hoping to make the big club will become an integral part of their success.
Unfortunately for Pirates' fans like myself, there will be another losing season.
The Pittsburgh Pirates have discovered the science of losing. It's impossible to pinpoint what has gone wrong to get them to this point because they are able to fail fantastically in every aspect of fielding a competitive team.
For years they tried to pretend they were dedicated to bringing a World Series to Pittsburgh, while putting minimal effort into the development, acquisition and retention of talent.
These days the Pirates are entering their fourth year of yet another rebuilding effort. While it has yet to yield any results at the major league level, I would like to believe that this plan may actually have legs.
Still, being the Pirates, I know they will inevitably find a way to screw up this rebuilding effort, just like all of the others.
Fortunately, I have been able to watch enough of the Pirates over these last 19 years to know exactly how this season will go down in flames. After watching hundreds of Pirates games since Sid Bream beat LaValliere's tag and broke my 10-year old heart, I have observed a pattern in the failures of the Pirates.
These observations, which I present to you, have held true for years. Perhaps just stating them for all to read will put them to rest, but at the very least it assures I wont be surprised when the season inevitably goes down in flames.
1. The starting pitcher who was good last year will be painfully awful this year.
Examples: Oliver Perez, Tom Gorzelanny, Ian Snell, Zack Duke
2011 Candidate: James McDonald
Seemingly every year, the Pirates have a starting pitcher who appears to be on the cusp of a breakout season. Fans and front office personnel alike beam when they speak of them.
The home opener usually becomes a celebration of our new hero as he embarks on what is sure to become an All-Star caliber year. Somewhere around his third start, our hero suddenly develops control problems brought on by a mechanical change that was concocted by whatever half-wit the Pirates are employing as a Pitching Coach in that particular year.
By May, he is overcompensating by grooving fastballs down the middle to notorious Pirate-killers like Ryan Braun and Corey Hart.
By the All Star Break, he is consistently pitching only to the outside corner and has no confidence in his abilities. He will eventually be traded to a contender for pennies on the dollar and no one will care.
James McDonald impressed after coming over at the trade deadline when the Dodgers decided they really wanted Octavio Dotel for some unknown reason. In 11 Starts with the Pirates, McDonald went 4-5 with a 3.52 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP and a K/BB of nearly 3-1.
For many teams, this would be a cause for celebration.
For the Pirates, it spells his doom.
I haven't heard of any stories of his delivery being reworked, but I'm certain that he will fail for no other reason than the fact that I have seen this story unfold many times before.
2. The rookie that gave fans hope will predictably fall apart for no apparent reason.
Examples: Ronny Paulino, Tike Redman, Chris Duffy
2011 Candidate: Neil Walker
When a Pirate has a good rookie season but fails in his second year, his sophomore slump can usually be attributed to coaching. Paulino and Redman were asked to hit for power and ruined their swings. Duffy was asked to swing for contact and it ruined his attitude.
Walker's problems have more to do with range and fielding ability at 2B. He is a great athlete who excelled defensively in the minors at 3B after having problems with errors at catcher. He will be working closely with the coaching staff this spring to remedy his issues in the field.
Much like Delwyn Young before him, this will somehow make him into a worse baseball player. As much as I would love to see Walker succeed, a look at his minor league stats will show that last year was an aberration. His highest OPS in six minor league seasons was his .773 in 2009. Last year, he OPS'ed at .811 in 369 MLB at bats.
He doesn't walk as often as he should and much of his OBP relies on his batting average. His career minor league batting average sits at .273.
By statistics alone, it appears Neil Walker is destined to regress in 2011.
Duffy and Paulino seemingly hated their tenure in Pittsburgh and went out of their way to become a distraction. Walker is a hometown boy who grew up a fan of the Bucs, so I don't see that happening in this case.
My prediction for Walker is that he becomes the next John Wehner. His hometown appeal and ability to play many positions will keep him coming back to Pittsburgh on minor league deals, even though he will be unable to hit major league pitching.
Eventually, he will replace a retiring Bob Walk as a color commentator. It's okay, Neil. You will always have the magical summer of 2010.
3. The acquisition that was meant to bolster a weak position will instead make you long for the loser that he replaced.
Examples: Derek Bell, Aki Iwamura, Jeromy Burnitz
2011 Candidate: Lyle Overbay
The signing of Overbay was panned by the media and the Pirates' fan base. I've spent time looking at the numbers, trying to justify the signing, and have been unable to do so.
Though solid with the glove and passable when it comes to plate discipline, Overbay is older and less talented than former Pirates 1B Adam Laroche. Laroche was essentially run out of town on a rail in 2009 by an angry Pirates fan base that had grown tired of his inconsistency.
Many fans wonder if the Pirates would be better served splitting 1B between Steve Pearce and Garrett Jones as they did last year before Pearce's injury.
The teams recent history with free agent signings has fanned the flames of pessimism in regards to the Overbay signing. Just last year, Aki Iwamura was brought in to shore up second base only to under perform to the point of him returning to Japan after the season.
At 31 years of age last season, the Pirates believed that Iwamura could serve as the long term solution to their problems at second base as he was a starter on a Tampa Bay Rays team that went to the World Series just two years prior.
No matter what a free agent has accomplished before coming to Pittsburgh, he seems to put up the worst numbers of his career after he suits up for the Pirates. This phenomenon seems to be a mixture of poor talent evaluation and apathy on the part of the free agents.
Most players who sign with Pittsburgh only do so in hopes of getting traded to a contender. If the season starts to go south, they often spend the rest of the season mailing it in until their contract expires.
Free Agent signings have done everything to get out of their contracts—from declaring "Operation Shutdown" to hatching elaborate plots involving ransom and kidnapping, as Raul Mondesi did during the 2004 season.
In retrospect, a year of watching Jeromy Burnitz jog after line drives in the outfield could have been much worse.
Being a Pirates fan is not for the faint of heart. The team seems to be incapable of learning from their past which dooms them to making the same mistakes time and time again.
With the recent success of the other professional sports franchises in Pittsburgh, the rest of the nation does not seem to be in a hurry to elicit any sympathy towards fans of the Bucs.
We're all in this together, Pirates fans. We know this season is doomed before it even begins. Hopefully, by listing my observations, I can spare a fellow fan of the crushing disappointment when McDonald gets shelled, Walker hits .240 and Overbay sleepwalks through his contract.
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