Pittsburgh Pirates: Brutal Youth

A short while ago, Omar Minaya got into some hot water for saying something stupid. I'll refresh your memory, because after a while all the stupidity of this organization blends together. In a lengthy profile of the Mets done by USA Today, in which all of the teams woes were delineated in excruciating fashion, Minaya was quoted at length about his own performance. The face-palm moment came when he said New York is "not a market where you can go young. You have to bring in players."

This seemed to confirm the worst beliefs about how the Mets' front office thinks and operates. Not only did they completely misunderstand the economics of baseball in the 21st century, but they also misunderstood their fanbase. "Of course you can go young in New York!" people screamed. "We will accept growing pains from young players sooner than useless veterans!"

I agree with this sentiment, in the broadest terms. But I also saw something this week that makes me wonder if Mets fans would really accept a total Youth Movement. And that something is the PIttsburgh Pirates.

The Pirates have been in perpetual rebuilding mode since 1992, when Sid Bream beat a throw to the plate and Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla were lost to free agency. For years, they were criticized (and rightly so) for curious, low- or no-yield free agent signings like Derek "Operation Shutdown" Bell, Jeromy Burnitz, and Joe Randa, which did nothing but drain their already meager payroll.

Pittsburgh also did a terrible job of using the one asset they did have--high draft picks--wisely. B.J. Upton, Ryan Howard, and Matt Wieters are just some of the players who could have been Pirates now, if only the Pirates had picked them. To be fair, many of these players wanted contracts the cash-strapped Pirates could not afford. But one big reason they couldn't afford to sign talented amateurs is because they spent money on useless free agent signings like Doug Mientkiewicz.

The Pirates have clearly learned the error of their ways. They're finding ways to sign their draft picks, rather than using that money on the Terry Mulhollands of the world. This year's Pirates team is full of very young players with potential, kids like Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez. There are virtually no veterans in their everyday lineup. It is a Youth Movement in extremis. That's a good thing. Right?

Perhaps, for the long term future of your club. In the short term, it can make for some supremely unwatchable baseball.

Case in point: Wednesday's game against the Mets. Pittsburgh takes a 5-0 lead into the bottom of the fourth. After two one-out singles, the first Met run scores when second baseman Neil Walker can't field a sharp ground ball, easily the most excusable blunder of the night. After a walk to load the bases and an RBI single, Pedro Alvarez makes a nice play on a dribbler up the third base line and tosses it to home for the force. But the ball clanks off Chris Snyder's glove, allowing two more runs to score. Then, shortstop Ronny Cedeno muffs a fairly easy ground ball, allowing the tying run to score. Two batters latter, Angel Pagan drives in two more runs with a single up the middle. Seven runs score in the inning--only two of them earned--en route to an 8-7 Met win.

This is the kind of inning a Youth Movement team will have, particularly on the road. The Pirates are on pace to lose more games away from home than any team in modern baseball history, even worse than the wretched 1963 Mets.

The average age of the Pirates' position players in Wednesday's starting lineup: 25.5. Remove 29 year olds Snyder and Garret Jones, and it's 24.3. Six of these eight players have three or fewer years of major league service. Three of them have less than a year. Two are in their first season in the bigs. Some of these kids are very talented. But they're still kids, and that means growing pains. Those growing pains increase exponentially with every youngster you add to the lineup.

From both an economic and common sense stance standpoint, this is the kind of lineup the Pirates should field. They've tried bolstering themselves with veterans and it brought no appreciable success. They might as well play their prospects, to both give them major league experience and get fans excited about the future.

But I wonder, if the Mets did something similar, would you watch? Could you watch? Would you be willing to suffer through multiple seasons of baseball like the kind seen on Wednesday night, on the promise of 22- and 23-year-olds, some of whom may never reach their potential?

As I watched that nightmare inning above, I scanned the Twitter-verse, and the sentiment I heard over and over from Met fans was, Thank god I'm not a Pirates fan. Because for all the woes the Mets have suffered the past few seasons, they are a team that has a chance when the year begins. Regardless of who they do or do not sign in the offseason, and even with the whispers of Bernie Madoff-caused insolvency, you can say they have a shot. (How big a shot depends on your perspective and/or self-delusion.) This is because they have some established, experienced major league talent, a few bona fide elite players, and starting pitching that is not a complete disaster area.

On the other hand, you can virtually guarantee right now that the Pirates do not have a shot in 2011, because they lack all these things. Their hope lies several years in the future. A season like 2010 might plant the seeds for a fruitful tomorrow. But in the short term, all they can count on is more evenings like Wednesday's.

If it pays off down the road, their fans will take it. Any fans would. But if given a choice, would you take that gamble?

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