The Pirates are in disarray. No kidding, right? That statement has been true for quite some time. They have a .420 winning percentage, which puts them on pace to win 68 games this year. The good news is that they have a few talented young players; the bad news is that they don't nearly have enough.
The Pirates two highest paid players are arguably their worst everyday players. Second baseman Freddy Sanchez (scheduled to make $6.1M in 2009) and shortstop Jack Wilson (scheduled to make $7.5M in 2009) are being paid based on past performance and their present performance doesn't come close to those levels. Sanchez won the batting title in 2006 and was a valuable player that year, putting up a .344/.378/.473 line. He didn't walk a lot or hit a lot of home runs (6), but he hit a ton of singles and doubles. Unfortunately for the Pirates, they paid him based on that season and he has been progressively worse each year since then. In 2007 his line was .304/.343/.442 and this season it has been .267/.295/.368. He is only 30 years old this season, so it is possible that he could recoup some of the value that he's lost over the last two seasons, but it is unlikely that he will ever get back to his 2006 form, or provide enough value to be worth his contract.
Jack Wilson, on the other hand, has been bad for some time. In 2007 the Pirates benched him and tried to trade him (they couldn't find anyone willing to take on his contract) and it seemed to light a fire under Jack as he bounced back to put up a .296/.350/.440 line. It was good enough that the Pirates decided to stick with Jack and he started this season as the starting shortstop. Unfortunately, he reverted to his previous form and has put up a .274/.314/.351 line while playing only about half of the time.
The other half of their infield consists of the LaRoche brothers at the corners. The Pirates acquired Adam LaRoche after the 2006 season, when LaRoche had hit .285/.354/.561 with 32 homeruns. In a recurring theme, LaRoche hasn't repeated that performance since the trade. He has been solid, but not quite the intimidating middle-of-the-order threat that the Pirates had envisioned. They traded for Adam's younger brother Andy during this season. Andy has been a highly touted prospect for several years in the Dodgers organization. Andy crushed the ball at AAA, but never had the same performance at the big league level and many blamed his struggles on the Dodgers refusal to give him consistent playing time. He has struggled mightily since the trade (and he has been given consistent playing time for the Pirates), but he will begin 2009 as the everyday third baseman for the Pirates and most expect him to play well.
The Pirates best position player is playing center field for them this year. Nate McLouth didn't exactly come out of nowhere, but it was next to nowhere. McLouth was seen as a fourth outfielder type of guy that couldn't sustain his hitting as a full time player, but his at bats have increased in each of his four seasons and his numbers have gotten better as his playing time has increased. There was some hint of a breakout in his numbers last season (.258/.351/.459), but no one expected the season that he has had. McLouth has hit 26 home runs and stolen 20 bases while putting up a .280/.359/.515 line. I would expect that McLouth's numbers will regress towards his 2007 numbers, but he has earned himself a spot in the outfield next year.
The rest of the team is a mix of potential and potential gone wrong. Their catcher, Ryan Doumit has been excellent this year, putting up a .3185/.357/.495 line. He is a solid building block for the future. In addition to Andy LaRoche, the Pirates received outfielder Brandon Moss as part of the trade of Jason Bay. Moss has struggled a bit since coming over, and he doesn't look like a star, but he could be a solid major leaguer. The pitching staff has a lot of guys in their mid-20's that have had varied success in living up to their expectations. Starter Paul Maholm and closer Matt Capps have both pitched very well this season, while Zach Duke and Ian Snell have had their ups and downs. Jeff Karstens, who they received from the Yankees in the Xavier Nady trade, has pitched pretty well since becoming a Pirate.
So what should the Pirates do to build for 2009? Well, unfortunately, under even the sunniest of scenarios it is difficult to see the Pirates reaching .500 next year. Sure, they could back up a truck full of money and lure CC Sabathia, Ben Sheets, Mark Teixeira and several other free agents to the team and they'd be pretty good, but that isn't going to happen. The Pirates payroll was at $48.6M for 2008 and, except for getting Matt Morris' horrendous $9.5M off the books, the budget should be about the same for next year.
Help will be on its way from the minor leagues. Top prospect Andrew McCutcheon should be ready to start in center field for the Pirates next season. He is the proverbial 5 tool player and should be the guy that the Pirates build around for the future. Another guy to build around is Pedro Alvarez (assuming that the contract snafu with Scott Boras ever gets resolved). He was just drafted this past June and hasn't yet played any professional baseball, but he is expected to move very quickly through the farm system and might be ready for a major league role by 2010. The Pirates also have the enigmatic Jose Tabata, who they also received in the Xavier Nady trade. He has a lot of talent, but has never really lived up to the expectations placed on him. Perhaps he can blossom since he no longer has the pressure of being a Yankees prospect.
This isn't a very hopeful offseason plan, but my suggestion would be to try and trade Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and one or two of their middling pitchers (Zach Duke or Phil Dumatrait might have some value) and try to get young middle infield talent and/or pitching. Nate McLouth, Andrew McCutcheon, Ryan Doumit, Andy LaRoche, Matt Capps and Paul Maholm are all young, inexpensive and under team control for the next several years. They should use those guys as the foundation for the team and continue to look for talent others have overlooked and fill around the core with inexpensive options. There would be no point in signing anyone to a big free agent contract at this point. The Pirates are playing for 2010-2011.