Your 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates

Yes, it’s true, Mike Milbury has provided the internet, especially Penguins bloggers and fans, with an endless wealth of comedic gold. However, I’m going to leave that to the people who are funnier than I.

Instead today, I want to address the pressing question on the lips of every person in Pittsburgh. Can the Pirates produce a winning season this year? Make no doubt about it, the pressure is on, it’s one thing to run the record to nineteen consecutive losing seasons, but can they stop it before it hits 20? Hahahaha. A lot more after the jump.

I did this last year. I predicted a ten game improvement from the 2010 record of 57-105. My prediction looked bleak through July but then the Pirates came through clutch by playing 25 games under .500 through the second half of the year. Overall I was off by a respectable 5 games, 72-90 woo-hoo!

Last year was endemic of the entire losing streak for the Pirates. They often can compete for a little while; the fact that they stretched it out for 2 more months than usual was exciting. But in the end, this is a franchise that doesn’t know how to win. They don’t know how to play clutch down the stretch. Ownership and management (general management that is) don’t know how to acquire players who can create the magic and mystery that makes baseball a compelling sport to so many millions around the country. Guess what? Nothing is different this year. Let’s run through the positions and count the ways.

I honestly believe that if anything the infield is worse than it was a year ago. We might as well start at third base. It seems pretty obvious to me that Pedro Alvarez just doesn’t care. Some people have said that if he doesn’t turn it around this year he will go down as one of the “biggest busts” in baseball history. There are a lot of busts in baseball. Its not so much that he will be at the top of the list (although remember, he was the next pick after Stephen Strasburg in that draft) but he may go down as one of the best con men. He’s got his money and I think he’s content to live off of that for the rest of his life (or at least until he leaves the Pirates and decides to start caring again). I hope I’m wrong, but between wearing Barry Bonds’ Pirates number, acting like a dick away from the field, batting sub-.200 last year (and in spring training this year), and refusing every suggestion made by Clint Hurdle and company, I’m just not buying it. Neal Huntington has gone out of his way to say that Alvarez is going to start the season with the Pirates, and pretty much guaranteed that he will start the season as the Pirates’ third basemen, but with alleged class act (and career.280 hitter) Casey McGhehee and (rare) Spring Training sensation Josh Harrison waiting in the wings this seems like the desperate statement of a guy who’s job is inextricably tied to Alvarez’s success.

I admit that this is probably why I think it’s worse. I mean otherwise, there are only two new starters, Clint Barmes, but he won’t be any worse (and quite possibly a little better) at shortstop, and Rod Barajas who probably doesn’t have the offensive upside of the departed Ryan Doumit, but he also is more likely to stay healthy and improve the pitching. Last year, there were expanding expectations for Alvarez, he faired pretty well hitting 16 home runs in like 80 games the previous season. This year, you almost expect him to be troublesome and it’s hard to think of him as a prospect set on a breakout season.

The Pirates have a new shortstop. About all I can really say about him is that he’s a lot like the last shortstop. He’s not a big hitter, he isn’t great with OBP, and he is not an infamous base stealer. He’s pretty good in the field though.

Second base now. I think Neil Walker is going to continue to develop and improve. His fielding has never been stellar, but he’s always gotten the job done, and if there’s one thing he can claim that not even the likes of Chase Utley, Robinson Cano, or any of the other bigger second basemen can claim, he’ll be batting cleanup. You have to assume that he will be the next major target for the Pirates to work out a long-term deal with. I just hope they do.

First base then. Well I guess Garrett Jones is the starter. I like Garrett Jones, he seems like a likeable guy, and there is no denying that when he is on his game he can take over from the plate. The problem is he’s very streaky. Matt Hague could make the team out of training camp as probably the second best player in camp behind Josh Harrison. Its been suggested by people who actually care about these things that Casey McGehee will start at first against left-handed pitching.

Finally catcher. I have no idea what the Pirates are paying Rod Barajas, but I feel like it’s probably too much. Barajas is considered a very good pitcher’s catcher, and he has worked with some of the best, namely Roy Halladay and new Pirate A.J. Burnett. He’s also a really anemic hitter. As it turns out, the default catcher from last year, Michael McKenry, is the exact same thing. He was praised for the way he managed the game for the pitchers last year when the Pirates pitching staff was among the best in the league. He’s also an anemic hitter. So basically, for a team where every single dime matters, they went out and bought an older and more expensive version of what they already had. I know he was underwhelming in training camp, but if the Pirates really wanted to try to shake things up they should have stuck with Tony Sanchez, the other underwhelming prodigy drafted by Neal Huntington. At the very least he’s supposed to be a good hitter and could make for an interesting situational player. But as I say, he hasn’t panned out well either, so I guess two of a kind is better than nothing.

The Pirates will likely only carry four outfielders this year. If they all stay healthy (something that definitely didn’t happen last year) this could be a very proficient, if not severely underpowered group. Obviously the cornerstone for the outfield and for the whole team is Andrew McCutchen. The proud owner of a new $50 million contract is going to continue to develop and improve and I think will really emerge as one of the league’s absolute best 5 tool players by year’s end.

Jose Tabata has also shown glimpses of 5 tool utility (although considerably less power) and also totes around a fairly impressive new contract. He really struggled with injuries last season, but assuming he can avoid those, he would make a quality starting right fielder and number two hitter for pretty much any team in the league.

The wild card will be Alex Presley, in limited games with the Pirates last season he looked pretty impressive. Again, not a power hitter, but a good OBP and speed to burn. His speed will also give him good range, although playing left field in PNC Park has proven to be a nightmare for a lot of guys in the past. Hopefully because Presley is younger and more athletic than most of the left fielders the Pirates have had the (mis)fortune of employing, he’ll be able to sort it out. If he can play the way he did last year, he will make for a competent leadoff guy. As per the problems the Pirates always have, its more about whose going to get him round to score.

The fourth outfielder will be Nate McLouth. He was an all-star in Pittsburgh before getting traded away for Charlie Morton and some guys who have never been heard of before or since. McLouth really struggled after leaving Pittsburgh, in a couple of seasons in Atlanta he was often injured and even when he was healthy he struggled mightily at the plate. You have to think that if the Pirates really thought Nate could get back to the way he played in Pittsburgh, they wouldn’t be viewing him as the bench outfielder. Anyway he could add good depth, actually played on a team that has won in this generation, and is also familiar with the outfield of PNC Park.

Again, I have no real complaints about the outfield, so long as they stay healthy, and so long as they play at the level they have shown themselves capable of, their biggest frustration could be that every time 1,2, and 3 get on, the rest of the team strikes out leaving them all stranded.

Starting Pitching
Well obviously if there is one area where the Pirates are expected to be better it would be at pitching. The biggest acquisition was of course A.J. Burnett. If not for the broken orbital bone in his face he would be the clear-cut ace. I mean there certainly are things to like about Burnett, just as there certainly are things to dislike about him. Typically Burnett is a real workhorse; he rarely gets injured and eats up a ton of innings every year. That’s good because that’s a lot different than what happened to the Pirates’ starters down the stretch last year. Additionally, he still has a really strong arm and can still throw well into the mid-90s. I mean the downside is that he’s far and away the most expensive player on the roster and he won’t even be starting the season healthy. Additionally, he is 35 and one would have to assume that his career is on the downside. Further, there are the fears that he really wasn’t all that good in his recent seasons for the Yankees, and if you can’t excel on a great team, how can you be expected to play well for a less than great team? I think Yankee Stadium has a lot to do with Burnett’s struggles and given that PNC Park is much less of a hitter’s park, I think he’ll be okay.

Tomorrow’s opening day starter is the other new acquisition, Erik Bedard. When he’s healthy he’s been a difference maker. The problem is that he hasn’t been healthy for an entire season in what has to be a decade. (Notice how lazy I am with this post. I guess I just really really don’t care.) He will be the lone lefty amongst the starters. If he can stay healthy and put together some games he’ll be an improvement over last year’s lone lefty, Paul Maholm. Of course the trouble is that that is a big “if.”

After that will likely be Jeff Karstens, he finally got a chance to start for almost an entire season last year and proved that he might be one of the most underrated pitchers in the game. He’s not a fireballer, and he isn’t much of a strikeout artist, but actions speak louder than words and his ERA was pretty good. I mean the comparisons made of him to Greg Maddux were not idle thoughts, so hopefully he can continue to grow his game.

After that you’re looking at Kevin Correia. The guy made the All-Star Team last year, something that I cannot recall a single starting pitcher of the Pirates doing in my entire lifetime. This year he is going in as the number 4 starter. I mean this should seem encouraging, but he also melted down late in the season, so it might have more to do with that than the perceived talent ahead of him. Again, this is a long-time major leaguer, he’s also not a power pitcher, but if he plays like he did in the first half of last year he could be a deep #4.

James McDonald is in there. The Pirates organization seems to love him. I can’t say I have ever seen him pitch and not get lit up for like 5 runs an inning. Hopefully another offseason of preparation and studying will make him into a breakout star. Only time will tell.

Charlie Morton also has to be factored into the starting rotation. Like Burnett he will be starting the season on the DL. Also like Burnett at one time he was considered the ace of the staff. One has to assume that he will be a starter when he returns but I honestly haven’t the foggiest who will get moved to the bullpen when he does return. Again, it seems like the coaches and management love James McDonald far beyond any return on value, Correia, Bedard, and Burnett are all probably too old to willingly go to the pen, and Karstens is the most consistent and has the best upside realistically speaking. I honestly think that someone has assumed that Bedard will be hurt by the time Morton can return and then the issue will resolve itself. Hopefully Charlie can continue on the track he established last year when he went from the worst statistical pitcher to far above average. A bright spot that, admittedly, I never would have predicted.

Relief Pitching
This was a surprising strength for the Pirates last year. Going into the season with Joel Hanrahan and a bunch of guys who hadn’t played in the MLB much (or) at all, this looked like the weakest link in the chain. In reality, especially over the first half of the year the bullpen came through clutch time and time again. If anything they are better this year. Evan Meek should be back and can play the role of key set-up guy. Midseason acquisition Jason Grilli is also capable of filling in should the Pirates have a lead in the 8th inning. Anyway, if the starters can consistently get to the 6th or 7th innings, I believe in this group to take it from there.

Well Bob Nutting didn’t fire Clint Hurdle after last season, that’s a good first step. The more I learn about Hurdle the more I like him. I think he manages a game well tailored to the skills the Pirates possess. Further he really seems to actually care about the organization and the city of Pittsburgh, call me a homer but that means a lot to me as a fan, it’s nice to know that the manager is laying his roots in this city and that he wants to be the one to deliver the Pirates back to winning baseball. I like his coaching staff too. If there is any manager that you actually have rooted for during all of these losing seasons, it has to be Hurdle.

Of course, I’m not sure that I buy into the other upper management components of the Pirates. I mean everyone knows that Bob Nutting has no business owning a baseball team. We all know that he manipulates fair practice rules, and by keeping the Pirates’ payroll low, makes money before the team plays a single game. Call it what you will, but this is what we have to deal with.

If there is a criticism I can make of Neal Huntington and Frank Coonelly beyond the subpar success with first round picks it has to be that players still don’t really want to come to Pittsburgh. Despite the successes of last season and despite the fact that they would get to play with one of the very most exciting young superstars in the league, Andrew McCutchen, guys aren’t willing to come to Pittsburgh to play baseball.

Obviously the conspicuously absent Derek Lee is case in point. The guy has basically decided that after spending a couple of months in Pittsburgh, he would rather retire than play for the Pirates. That’s pretty bad publicity if you ask me.

Other examples abound. Reports over the winter months suggested that the Pirates wanted to spend money on free agents, but the free agents almost universally spurned the Pirates, sometimes taking less money to play elsewhere. Edwin Jackson comes to mind here. Before turning their focus to Burnett, who they acquired in a trade, they targeted Jackson, they offered him a nearly identical contract to what they’re paying Burnett, and also very comparable to what he agreed to with the Washington Nationals. Jackson is younger and could have been a long-term piece had he come here. But alas, he hasn’t.

Bottom Line
All right last year I predicted the Pirates would be 10 games better. This was coming off of one of the most abysmal seasons in professional sports history. They ended up doing 15 games better overall. This year, I’m saying they’ll do another 5 games better, 75-87.

The NL Central is a lot different this time around, there’s no more Pujols and there’s no more Fielder. The Reds look to be the runaway favorites. While the Cardinals and Brewers lost their best players, the Reds were busy getting even better. The nice thing is that there are now two wild card opportunities, there’s no guarantee the Pirates will get one, but hey they stand a better chance now than ever before. Maybe this can be the year, I really hope so, but when I look at this team I still can’t really see it.


One Comment on “Your 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates”

  1. […] Pirates season ended yesterday in a 4-0 loss to the Atlanta Braves. Overall the team went 79-83. For what it’s worth I predicted 75-87 and warned of the potential of a second half meltdown li… I wish I could be as good at predicting hockey stuff as I am at predicting the Pirates. But then […]

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