It says a lot about the state of this franchise that a .500 April is cause for optimism. But then, this is a team that has just enjoyed only its second opening month with at least as many wins as losses in the post-strike era. Basically, the Pirates have almost always been buried in the standings before May Day. Last season, they hit a new low, closing out the first month of play with a 7-19 record, essentially rendering the next five months pointless.
We'll take our surprising mediocrity, thank you. And by surprising, I don't mean that this group of players shouldn't be hanging around .500. What I do mean is that judging by the way this group of players has played so far, they should actually be a few games or so worse than they have been -- their pythagorean win-loss total right now is 10-14.
The question, then, is can this be sustained for five more months? Clearly not if the offense continues to consider four runs scored a good night, and if Salomon Torres keeps alternating between horrible luck and horrible pitching for each blown save. But if we examine the factors that have contributed to the team's 12-12 record, for better or for worse, we should be able to deduce whether or not a competitive season is realistic.
Players who have been as good as expected or better than expected:
- Jason Bay -- first and foremost, the offense simply revolves around Jason Bay. Despite rumblings of his "anti-clutchness," Bay still compiled a .280/.362/.495 line. While that's not quite up to par with the deservedly lofty expectations we have for Bay, it's pretty much on par with his .283/.388/.487 line in April throughout his career. He should be fine, and will probably end up with his typical superb season.
- Chris Duffy -- Talk about a 180-degree turnaround (or in Duffy's bizarre world, a 360-degree turn), but Duffy has gone from an April in which he was so bad that he actually quit baseball for about a month to looking like he has some idea of what he's doing with a baseball bat in his hands. He's currently third on the team in walks and second in on-base percentage, which is something that absolutely must be kept up if the Pirates are going to be successful offensively.
- Jack Wilson -- Jack is outhitting his career line by about 65 OPS points. Granted, that's not saying much, and he'll probably revert to his usual ineffectual self at some point in the near future. But hey, he's still great at moving runners over, which is always a good thing when Jim Tracy is your manager because that idiot really likes to waste outs with the likes of Jason Bay due up. Defensively, Jack has been nothing less than excellent, which is to say he's returned to his previous level after a disappointing 2006 in the field.
- Jose Bautista -- Bauti is crediting a shorter swing to his decent start to the 2007 season. He's not walking at the same rate that he did last year, but he's making a ton more contact. The home run power has yet to show up, but his 10 doubles in 24 games attest that he's still driving the ball somewhat, and he claims the power will come as he gets more comfortable with his new swing. He's also been outstanding defensively at the hot corner, yet to commit an error and leading the N.L. in range factor.
- Ian Snell -- Snell has been one of the best pitchers in baseball in the early going, real talk. He's evolved into the one starting pitcher the Pirates have where I'm expecting a win pretty much every time out. While he's obviously not going to have a 1.59 ERA all year, somewhere in the low 3's with 15 or so wins is a fair expectation for someone with his talent and stuff.
- Tom Gorzelanny -- Saturday night's 6-inning, 5-run debacle excluded, Gorzo has been close to Snell's level this year. After completely blowing up in spring training, he's made the Bucco brass look smart with their decision to keep him in the rotation. He's shown good control, with around a 2.6:1 K:BB ratio, and he's only served up one homer so far. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see him finish with a similar line to the one he has right now, but he could regress slightly as well and it wouldn't be that big of a deal.
- Matt Capps -- Capps has been practically untouchable, and although he's not going to finish the year with a sub-1 ERA (shades of Papelbon lololol), he's still 23 years old and his secondary pitches only keep getting better, which is always a plus when you have a mid-90s fastball that you can put wherever you want.
- Jonah Bayliss -- Apart from Capps (and closer Torres, obviously), Bayliss is the only right-handed reliever Jim Tracy trusts in late-inning, high-leverage situations, and rightly so. Bayliss has yet to allow any inherited runners to score, and he's gotten out of some really sticky spots, including a couple of bases loaded messes, such as the juiced/nobody out situation he rescued Tony Armas, Jr. from last Thursday.
- Damaso Marte -- Welcome to LOOGYville. As usual, Marte has managed to actually pitch far worse than his numbers suggest. He can still be useful for a crucial strikeout here and there, but I still hide my head every time this guy comes trotting out from the bullpen.
- Shawn Chacon -- Yeah, I'm including him here only because the expectations for him were so astronomically low coming in. In all fairness, he has pulled some heroic long relief outings out of his ass, like the time he pitched four scoreless innings in that 16-inning marathon against the Astros last week.
- John Grabow -- He hasn't had a chance to suck yet, so we'll just slot him in here until he does.
- Xavier Nady -- Sort of the forgotten man, in that he hasn't played the field in like two weeks because he has a "nagging hamstring problem" and this team is too stupid to understand how the disabled list is supposed to be utilized. When he was healthy, he provided a nice power boost to an otherwise completely deprived lineup, although his plate discipline was awful. Despite what Dave Littlefield would like to think, Nady is far from the answer, although he'd be a nice complementary piece for a team with three or four legitimate hitters already, especially if he can platoon and play predominantly against lefties.
- Ryan Doumit -- It's only been 17 at-bats, but they've been awesome ones. Clearly he's not going to keep this up all season, but he was absolutely raking so bad in AAA at the time of his call-up that it was almost unfair (.415/.493/.717). He's obviously somewhat talented at hitting, so the Pirates could do far worse (and believe me, they probably will) than just giving this guy some at-bats and turning him loose. Sadly, he's also the team's only backup catcher and Jim Tracy wakes up in cold sweats every night over the possibility of having to stick Don Kelly behind the plate for an inning in the extremely likely scenario that Ronny Paulino stubs a toe and Doumit has already been used as a pinch-hitter.
- Adam LaRoche -- every list of Pirates disappointments so far has to start with LaRoche, who was probably unfairly expected to be the left-handed savior of baseball in Pittsburgh. He's stunk so bad thus far that the masses are already clamoring for the return of Mike Gonzalez and his busted elbow, and Sal's struggles haven't exactly helped things. Still, he's a notoriously slow starter, as his .182/.282/.354 line will attest. He's still drawn a team-high 13 walks and his defense has pretty much been as advertised -- not gold-glove caliber, but certainly above average. It's been frustrating watching this, to say the least, but I'm not worried. Yet.
- Salomon Torres -- The knee-jerk reactions to Sal's slow start have been annoying to have to deal with. As one of Sal's biggest apologists, it's obnoxious to listen to. He hasn't pitched all that great, but two of his threw blown saves weren't even his fault. One was the result of a passed ball and an error by Ronny Paulino in the same inning, and in another he let exactly one ball leave the infield. Sal will be fine, mark my words.
- Freddy Sanchez -- This one's easy, Freddy's basically been playing through a month of spring training. He was injured like a week into the real spring training and didn't come off the DL until about five games into the regular season, so he's obviously going to need some time to get warmed up. He's looked very unlike himself in finishing April with a .224 batting average, and he's really chased some bad pitches that he ordinarily stays away from -- he's already struck out over a quarter of the times he did in all of last year. Still, he showed signs of getting back on track just last night, when he had two hits and even his two outs were both solidly struck. He obviously wasn't going to hit .340 again, but he should still recover enough to finish in the .300 range.
- Ronny Paulino -- Yeah, I don't even know what this guy is doing right now. Everything he did right last year and during March this year, he's doing the exact opposite of right now. He's probably not that good of a hitter after all, but there's no way he's this bad, either. And if he is this bad, Ryan Doumit certainly can't be.
- Zach Duke -- Duke hasn't been quite as bad as his ERA indicates, but he hasn't been that good, either. Four of his six starts have been of the quality variety, but the other two were flat-out ugly, 7 runs apiece in 2 innings and 4 innings, respectively. I don't know where the Duke we saw two years ago went, but it probably has something to do with Duke essentially being a glorified junkballer. He doesn't have a legitimate out pitch, and thus will probably never be more than a middle of the rotation caliber starter. Which is okay, because we have Snell and Gorzo to be the front end of the rotation. As long as he keeps pitching quality starts more often than not, I'll be happy with him.
- Paul Maholm -- My stance on Maholm has long been that he's quite simply not a good pitcher, but he's already established himself as a proven mediocrity so it'll be a long time before someone is able to pry him out of a Major League rotation somewhere. Take away that complete game shutout last week against the hapless Astros, and his season would look like a total disaster. I'd just as soon give Bullington/VanBenschoten/Burnett an opportunity in his place, but it's never going to happen.
- Tony Armas, Jr. -- Let me be on the record as saying I was never particularly happy with giving this guy a multi-million dollar contract to begin with, and so far he's done nothing to prove me wrong. Granted, I didn't expect him to be this awful, but it makes me even more justified now that he has been. His WHIP is almost 3.00. 'Nuff said. Meanwhile, Bryan Bullington has a 1.17 ERA in AAA. I hate being a fan of this team.
- John Wasdin -- Yep, good ol' Wayback has been about as bad as expected. It doesn't even really matter because when he pitches the game has almost always already been decided, and he's also the first to go the next time the Pirates want to call somebody up, so he's essentially harmless.
- The bench -- Has been pretty much nonexistent, it's safe to say. The only player who's been even remotely serviceable has been Nate McLouth. Brad Eldred and Jose Castillo look absolutely clueless, and Don Kelly is probably the least useful player ever to wear a Major League Baseball uniform. It doesn't help that this already-weakened group is left a man short by the Pirates continuing to dick around with Xavier Nady even though the guy hasn't been able to run for two weeks. Of course, this weakness would be far less glaring if the rest of the team could hit, which they haven't shown any inclination to do thus far.
As it stands right now, the players who have performed above expectations look like they should regress far less than the players who have been worse than expected should improve. In particular, there's absolutely no way that LaRoche, Sanchez, Paulino, Torres, Duke, the 5th starter spot, etc., will be this bad all year.
The fact that the Pirates have sneaked out of the month with a 12-12 record despite all of their woes is extremely uplifting. While being a fan of this team has taught me to expect absolutely nothing, I can't help but feel some cautious optimism about this team's chances to be competitive all season long.
For now, though, I'm just taking this one game at a time, waiting patiently for the whole team to finally start to click...