By: Ryan SmithThe first half of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ 2011 season was different from previous seasons for one reason – they actually had some success. Through July 28th, they stood at 54-49. The Pirates were in a spot they weren’t all too familiar with because they were actually contenders. For once, they weren’t selling their best players to other teams jockeying for playoff position. Their games actually mattered.
Exciting times in Pittsburgh.
Then the Pirates went on a 10-game losing streak. They never recovered, finishing with another 90-loss season. A promising season became just another disappointment for the Pittsburgh faithful.
And I don’t see 2012 breaking from tradition.
Honestly, I just don’t see much of a difference between last year’s Pirates squad and the 2012 version. They’ve made some minors moves during the off-season, but nothing to write home about. Let’s take a look at what the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates should look like.
2012 Projected Opening Day Lineup
Infield – 1B Garrett Jones, 2B Neil Walker, SS Clint Barmes, 3B Pedro AlvarezAnalysis – Jones seems to fit the mold of your typical first baseman, providing some decent numbers at the plate and leaving something to be desired in the field. His .328 wOBA last year was just above the expected league average and Jones isn’t going to tear the cover off of the ball with his 20-homerun potential. He does seem to be gaining a reputation of being pretty durable, playing in over 148 games in each of the last three years. His UZR/150 of -13.2 at first certainly isn’t going to make his pitchers feel comfortable about his presence behind them…Neil Walker is another player who doesn’t add much with his glove, posting a UZR/150 of -2.5. The .273/.334/.408 line he posted last season is pretty respectable at his position. Only in his third full season in the big leagues, Walker still has room to grow, but he’s going to have to do it soon if he wants to be a part of any sort of rebuilding project in Pittsburgh…Acquiring Barmes was one of the few moves that Pittsburgh made during the off-season that should pay dividends relatively quickly. After bouncing around from position to position in Colorado, Barmes finally found a permanent home at shortstop and played like a natural, posting a UZR/150 of 10.8. In 539 chances in 2011, Barmes only committed 12 errors. His OPS+ of 93 brings him in below league average, so he’s not going to strike fear into the opposing pitcher…the former second-overall draft pick Alvarez has left more than a few people disappointed with his production thus far. In 74 games last year, Alvarez produced a brutal line of .191/.272/.289. Those numbers are unacceptable from the hot corner. And it’s not like he provides a lot of defensive value, committing 14 errors in only 214 chances. Still, the Pirates have to give him more opportunities to become the player they thought they were drafting in 2008.
Outfield – LF Alex Presley, CF Andrew McCutchen, RF Jose Tabata
Analysis – Tabata seemed to be the guy for left field going into last season, but Presley’s impressive audition toward the end of last season makes me think he’ll claim this side of the outfield. He isn’t a big power hitter, but he’s a career .291 hitter in the minors, and over at fangraphs.com, Bill James projects a .301/.346/.445 line in 2012 for Presley…McCutchen is one of the few players for Pittsburgh that everyone is familiar with. In 2011, in just his third full season in the majors, McCutchen established himself as one of the premier all-around players in Major League Baseball, posting impressive numbers all across the board, resulting in a 5.7 WAR. Pittsburgh better become more consistent pretty soon or McCutchen could become just another talented Pirates player traded away for a “rebuilding” project in a few years…Tabata may be shifting over to right field, but he’s still valuable to this team. He provides speed at the top of the order, and Pittsburgh could use any help to improve on offense, where they ranked 27th in the majors in runs scored last year.
Rotation – RHP Charlie Morton, RHP James McDonald, LHP Erik Bedard, RHP Jeff Karstens, RHP Kevin Correia
Analysis – Morton went 10-10 with a sub-4.00 ERA in 2011 while posting a 4.08 xFIP, which is slightly better than league average. Still, he’ll be coming off a hip injury and will likely not see the mound until some time in May…In his first full season as a starter in 2011, McDonald had his share of ups-and-downs. He didn’t blow anyone away with his strikeout rate (7.47 K/9) and he walked too many batters (4.11 BB/9). His LOB% of 77.0 was impressive, but it was a bit above the league average, which creates the concern that he might regress to the mean in 2012. His peripherals will need to improve in 2012 is McDonald wants to become a regular in this rotation…A few years ago, Bedard was one of the promising young pitchers in baseball. Last year, Bedard logged 129.1 innings, which was the first time he was able to reach triple-digits in innings since 2007. His addition should help overcome the loss of Paul Maholm, but you can’t but wonder when – not if – he’s going to land on the DL…In 2011, Karstens posted career-highs in innings pitched (162.1), strikeouts (96), and wins (9) while posting an impressive 1.83 BB/9. Karstens will need to duplicate those results to maintain his 3.38 ERA and 1.0 WAR in 2012. It’s just hard to predict another season like his 2011 with a pitcher who just relies so heavily on command…Correia could end up splitting time with Brad Lincoln in this fifth spot. Correia did end up going 12-11 last season, but luck played a large part in that winning record. His 4.85 xFIP leaves something to be desired. He also didn’t strikeout many hitters (4.50 K/9). I just see this fifth spot as a revolving door of spot starters for the Pirates this season.
Catchers – Rod Barajas
Analysis – This spot had been reserved for Ryan Doumit for the last few years, but now he calls Minnesota his home. The Pirates went out and signed the veteran Barajas to fill the void in 2012. Last season, while with the Dodgers, Barajas posted a .230/.287/.430 line. So basically, he stills has some power left in the bat but he doesn’t make contact often enough to put that power on display. His 1.3 WAR in 2011 pretty much says that he’s not going to win a lot of games for Pittsburgh, but he also shouldn’t be the cause of too many headaches for Bucs fans either.
Bench/Bullpen Analysis – Joel Hanrahan will be taking the ball in the ninth inning again for Pittsburgh this season. Last year, Hanrahan struck out eight batters per nine innings while only giving up one homerun all season. Even though closers can fluctuate quite a bit, the Pirates should feel pretty comfortable with this guy on the back end…Evan Meek provides another live arm that Pittsburgh can depend on…Jason Grilli strikes batters out (10.19 K/9), but he walks them enough too (4.13 BB/9)…Chris Resop has similar issues, with a 10.21 K/9 rate and a 4.09 BB/9 rate…Nate McClouth could see some time jumping around in the outfield, but he’s not the player he once was…Casey McGehee will also see a decent amount of time, splitting his services between first and third. I’d also go out on a limb and say that when he gets playing time during any of Pittsburgh’s trips to Milwaukee, he’ll receive a warm welcome from the Miller Park faithful.Overall Analysis – I don’t see the Pirates getting their fans’ hopes up this season. Too much went right over the course of the first half of 2011. Pittsburgh is lucky enough to have one bona fide superstar in McCutchen, but there just isn’t much else on this team that makes me think they will be able to come close to contention this season.
The Pirates farm system, ranked as the 13th-best system in baseball by Baseball America, has quite a bit of top-tier talent in pitchers Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon as well as outfielder Josh Bell. The only problem is that those guys are all a few years away. Pirates GM Neal Huntington is going to need to find a way for his team to tread water until those guys are ready, or by the time they make the show, McCutchen will be displaying his talents for a different organization.
Prediction: 69-93, 5th Place in the NL Central
Next Up: 2012 Chicago Cubs Preview