2011 Record: 72-90, 4th NL Central
2011 Prediction: 65-97, 5th NL Central
Impact Player: CF Andrew McCutchen
Impact Pitcher: RHP A.J. Burnett
Best Reliever: RHP Joel Hanrahan
Top Prospect: RHP Gerrit Cole
Heading into the All-Star Break in 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates and their suddenly energized fan-base were experiencing something that had been absent for almost two full decades in the Steel City: Winning baseball. At the time, they were 47-43 and sat just one game behind both the Brewers and Cardinals for first in the NL Central. The Pirates proceeded to win four of their next five games and sat alone in first place on July 19th. Baseball in Pittsburgh was suddenly the talk of the town, something it hadn’t been since Barry Bonds was still donning the black and gold.
Alas, reality came crashing down on the Bucs as their small sample surge regressed to the mean and Pittsburgh proceeded to have the worst record in the National League from July 20th onward. Their 72-90 record was their best since 1999, but they have now gone 19 seasons without a winning record, the longest such streak in any North American sport.
The Pirates have a stable of young arms in their farm system and although TNSTAAPP applies, one would think that the future looks bright for the Bucs. 2011 Fist overall pick Gerrit Cole is generally considered one of the top ten prospects in the game, 2010 second overall pick Jameson Taillon isn’t far behind him and other high ceiling arms such as Stetson Allie, Luis Heredia and Kyle McPherson give the Pirates lots to be hopeful for. Unfortunately, none of those pitchers will affect the Pirates chances at cracking the .500-mark in 2012.
In order to stop the gap in the meantime, the Pirates made two low-risk, bargain acquisitions this winter, first signing Erik Bedard and his taped-on left arm to a one-year, $4.5-million deal and then trading for A.J. Burnett. Burnett is owed $33-million over the next two years, but the Yankees will pay $13-million of that. His traditional stats were awful last year, but there is ample reason to suspect a rebound for A.J. especially since he’s no longer employed by an AL East team. His strike out rate is still very good and although he gave up far too many home runs last season, he also pitched to a 3.86 xFIP and has become quite durable despite his early-career struggles with injury. He will likely miss the first month recovering from a broken orbital bone after being hit in the face with a ball during a bunting drill. Bedard, meanwhile, had a nice season split between Seattle and Boston in 2011, posting a 3.62 ERA and a similar xFIP. He cannot be counted on for a lot of innings, but if he can come close to the numbers he put up last year, he’ll be a bargain.
Incumbent number one Charlie Morton had a good season last year, posting a 3.83 ERA and 4.08 xFIP in 171.2 innings, but his K/BB ratio was just 1.43, only three NL pitchers were worse in that regard. He keeps the ball on the ground very well and tends to induce a lot of weak contact, which would suggest that he can continue to outpitch his peripherals, but he needs to walk less than four batters per nine innings or regression is an inevitability.
The final two spots will likely go to James McDonald and Derp-Face McGee Jeff Karstens. Both were passable but neither was good and Karstens is in for a good amount of regression. McDonald has the higher upside of the two, but is now 27 and is running out of time to figure it out. He walks too many to be successful. If either of them can’t hold down their job, the Pirates have Brad Lincoln, Jeff Locke, Shairon Martis, Jo-Jo Reyes (feel free to snicker loudly), and swingman Kevin Correia on the depth chart if need be.
Joel Hanrahan is a fiercely good baseball pitcher, but he is simultaneously one of the most useless things in the game: A very good closer on a bad team. There’s no need for him to be a Pirate. The Pirates are awful and the amount of leads Mr. Hanrahan will be “saving” are minimal. If the Pirates were smart, they would trade Hanrahan to someone who can better use his services, but they don’t appear interested in doing that at this time. Hanrahan changed his pitching approach in 2011 to fantastic results; he punted a few strikeouts (although he still strikes out plenty) in favour of a much better walk rate and groundball percentage.
The bullpen outside of Hanrahan is a large question mark. Evan Meek and veteran Jason Grilli are back but the two combined to pitch just 53.1 innings in 2011. Meek needs to cut his walk-rate significantly and Grilli was very good after coming over from Philadelphia, but could turn back into a pumpkin at any time. Lefthander Daniel Moskos was a once highly-touted starter that may have a career pitching out of the bullpen. His ultra-low strikeout rate in 24.1 big-league innings last year is likely a sample-size outlier considering his minor-league track record. Daniel McCutchen pitched 84.2 decent innings last year and likely has a spot on the opening Day roster.
Righties Chris Resop, Jared Hughes, Chris Leroux, Juan Cruz, Ryota Igarashi and lefties Tony Watson and Doug Slaten will compete for the final bullpen spot.
The Pirates, as they have in virtually every season in the last two decades, had trouble scoring runs in 2011. They finished 14th in the NL in runs scored, home runs and OPS. Whether or not they’re much better in 2012 depends a lot on how good third baseman Pedro Alvarez is. Alvarez was pegged as a can’t-miss elite hitting prospect a few years ago, but has struggled to get acclimatized to the Majors. Last season, he posted a gag-worthy .191/.272/.289 slash line. He managed just six hits and a 54 wRC+ against lefties all year. He needs to cut down on his strikeouts dramatically if wants to succeed. There’s almost no way he can be worse than he was last year, but it’s hard to tell at this point if he’ll ever be what most thought he’d become.
Joining Alvarez in the infield will be converted third baseman, now second baseman Neil Walker. Walker was decent last year posting a 103 wRC+ and hitting 12 home runs, but the fact that he’s projected to hit cleanup for the Bucs tells one about all they need to know about Pittsburgh’s offense. If he can continue to get better defensively (he made serious strides according to the metrics last season) and hit like he did in 2010 (118 wRC+), he’ll be a well above-average big league second baseman.
The remaining infielders will be Garret Jones at first base and offseason acquisition Clint Barmes at shortstop. Barmes replaces the now-departed Ronny Cedeno who was undervalued. Barmes may have fallen into that category too, but Pittsburgh is set on paying him $10.5-million over two years; far more than they would have had to pay Cedeno for about the same production. Jones, meanwhile, moves in from the outfield fulltime which will probably help the team overall defensively, but he’s not good enough offensively for the position. He’ll never again reach the heights of his improbable breakout 2009 campaign.
The best player on the team by far is centerfielder Andrew McCutchen who was recently inked to a six-year, $51.5-million contract. The contract is an excellent deal for the Pirates and it shows that they may finally be willing to commit money to their big-name players rather than trading them before they hit their prime. McCutchen is a very well-rounded player who has no elite skills, but seems to do everything very well. He improved his approach last year despite the drop in his batted-ball average; if that normalizes, he’ll become a monster.
The corner outfield spots will go to Jose Tabata in rightfield and Alex Presley in left. Tabata is at best an average hitter but he’s young, has a team-friendly contract and is suitable enough to be a stop-gap until the likes of Josh Bell and Starling Marte arrive from the farm system. Presley could be a surprise late-bloomer in 2012. The 26-year-old posted a .350 wOBA in 52 games last year and there’s no reason to think he can’t repeat that over a full season. He had a high batted-ball average, but judging by his minor-league track record, that appears to be somewhat sustainable.
The Pirates signed veteran Rod Barajas to be their starting catcher and most regard the $4-million guaranteed that he received to be a liberal overpay. He does rate well in Mike Fast’s pitch framing study and it’s possible that Pittsburgh believes that because of that, he’s worth the money. He’ll still hit the odd home run and is probably no worse than average offensively for a catcher.
Michael McHenry and former Rocky Jose Morales will battle for the backup catching job while Casey McGehee was brought in from Milwaukee to push Alvarez at third. He can step in against lefties and also provide some off days for Jones at first. It’s not hard to imagine him ending up with more than 500 plate appearances in 2012. Nate McLouth is back after a little more than a year away, but is nothing more than a semi-useful fourth outfielder at this point. Yamaico Navarro should also have a spot on the Opening Day roster as a utility man. Infielders Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer will battle for the final bench spot with corner players Nick Evans and Jake Fox who can also catch if need be.
It seems as though the Pirates franchise finally has its head on straight. They’ve gone overslot on several high-ceiling players in the draft in recent seasons and the fruit of that endeavour should pay off in the next few years with stars like Cole, Taillon, Bell and Marte on the way. Unfortunately, the Bucs will make it an even 20 in 2012 as there is hardly a scenario that will see them finish with a .500 record.
2012 Prediction: 69-93, 4th NL Central