The Pittsburgh Pirates haven't made the playoffs in close to two decades, but things are looking up.
The Pirates had their best season in years in 2011, winning 72 games and staying right in the thick of things in the NL Central race for a good chunk of the year. There's plenty of young talent on the big club, and the Pirates have even more talent in their farm system. They have a couple of the best prospects in baseball.
Though the Pirates are a team on the rise and well worth watching, it won't be easy for them to compete for the division crown this season. The division is heavy up top, and the Pirates don't seem to have the firepower to compete with the big guys.
Here's a look at how the Pirates' 2012 season is shaping up.
2011 Record: 72-90
Key Arrivals (courtesy of BaseballProspectus.com): C Rod Barajas (FA), RHP Shairon Martis (FA), C Jake Fox (FA), OF Brandon Boggs (FA), OF Nate McLouth (FA), LHP Erik Bedard (FA), C Jose Morales (FA), SS Gustavo Nunez (waivers), SS Yamaico Navarro (from Kansas City), 3B Casey McGehee (from Milwaukee), LHP Kris Johnson (FA), 1B Jeff Clement (FA), RHP Ryoto Igarashi, 2B Anderson Hernandez (FA), RHP Logan Kensing (FA), LHP Jo-Jo Reyes (FA), LHP Doug Slaten (FA), LHP Brian Tallet (FA), RHP Juan Cruz (FA), RHP Kris Harvey (FA), RHP A.J. Burnett (from New York Yankees), RHP Daniel Cabrera (FA), SS Clint Barmes (FA).
Key Departures: C Brian Jeroloman (waivers), OF Xavier Paul (FA), RHP Ross Ohlendorf (FA), 3B Diego Gorris (to Kansas City), RHP Jeremy Hefner (waivers), RHP Jose Veras (to Milwaukee), OF Exicardo Cayones (to NYY), RHP Diego Moreno (to NYY), C Chris Snyder (FA), 1B Ryan Doumit (FA), 1B Derek Lee (FA), OF Ryan Ludwick (OF), SS Ronny Cedeno (FA), LHP Paul Maholm (FA).
Projected Rotation (per official site)
- A.J. Burnett (11-11, 5.15, 1.43)
- Jeff Karstens (9-9, 3.38, 1.21)
- Kevin Correia (12-11, 4.79, 1.39)
- Charlie Morton (10-10, 3.83, 1.53)
- James McDonald (9-9, 4.21, 1.49)
- Erik Bedard (5-9, 3.62, 1.28)
C: Rod Barajas (.230/.287/.430)
1B: Garrett Jones (.243/.321/.433)
2B: Neil Walker (.273/.334/.408)
3B: Pedro Alvarez (.191/.272/.289)
SS: Clint Barmes (.244/.312/.386)
LF: Alex Presley (.298/.339/.465)
CF: Andrew McCutchen (.259/.364/.456)
RF: Jose Tabata (.266/.349/.362)
Closer: Joel Hanrahan (R) (1-4, 40 SV, 4 BLSV, 1.83 ERA, 1.05 WHIP)
Evan Meek (R) (1-1, 4 HLD, 1 BLSV, 3.48, 1.89)
Chris Resop (R) (5-4, 1 SV, 15 HLD, 5 BLSV, 4.39, 1.48)
Jason Grilli (R) (2-1, 1 SV, 9 HLD, 2.48, 1.19)
Brad Lincoln (R) (2-3, 4.72, 1.47)
Chris Leroux (R) (1-1, 2 HLD, 1 BLSV, 2.88, 1.32)
Tony Watson (L) (2-2, 10 HLD, 1 BLSV, 3.95, 1.32)
Daniel McCutchen (R) (5-3, 10 HLD, 3.72, 1.42)
Daniel Moskos (L) (1-1, 1 HLD, 2.96, 1.56)
Scouting the Starting Pitching
The emergence of Pittsburgh's starting pitching was a key storyline early in 2011. The Pirates got off to a hot start, and that was thanks largely to the guys in the rotation.
But they couldn't keep it up. By the end of the season, Pittsburgh's starters had logged just 78 quality starts and had compiled an ERA of 4.21. Their collective K/BB was 1.83—the second worst in the National League.
The Pirates went out and added a couple key pieces to their rotation this offseason in A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard. It remains to be seen how they will be slated in the rotation, but both of them represent much-needed upgrades.
Pirates fans who have reservations about Burnett should relax. He was awful with the Yankees last season, but there's no way he's going to be that awful with the Pirates. Burnett will walk too many guys, but he'll also post a K/9 in the 8.00-9.00 range. The Pirates need a guy like that.
The key for Burnett will be keeping the ball in the ballpark. He gave up a ridiculous 31 home runs last season, or exactly 1.47 of them every nine innings. Exactly 17 percent of the fly balls he gave up left the park.
Merely being out of the American League East will help curb this problem. So will pitching at PNC Park, which is not a good home run park.
Bedard has the potential to be great—but only if he stays healthy. Bedard hasn't been able to make 30 starts since 2006, but the good news is that he pitched more innings last season than he had since 2007 when he was still with the Baltimore Orioles.
Bedard is another pitcher who will strike guys out, as he's typically good for a K/9 in the 8.00-9.00 range. He'll also walk too many guys and his stuff isn't unhittable anymore, which resulted in quite a few problems in Boston.
But just like Burnett, taking Bedard out of the AL East will help him. If he stays healthy (cross your fingers), he'll be closer to the pitcher he was with the Orioles way back when.
The emergence of Jeff Karstens was a key part of Pittsburgh's hot start last season, as he went 7-4 with a 2.55 ERA before the All-Star break. He really tailed off after the break, though, and I would think twice before buying into him as an ace in the making. He got the better of hitters in the first half of the season, but they rebounded to hit .295 off him in the second half of the season. He wasn't fooling anyone.
There's one stat that tells the whole story. Karsten's ERA was 3.38 last season, but his FIP was nearly a full run higher at 4.29. It's no wonder he leveled out last season.
Kevin Correia is another guy who had a strong first half last season, going 11-7 and making the All-Star team. He then proceeded to give up 11 home runs in fewer than 40 innings of work in the second half of the season. The home run ball plagued him even when he was in San Diego, so it's no surprise hitters started teeing off last season.
James McDonald and Charlie Morton both have upside, but both of them posted a BB/9 over 4.00 last season, which is not going to get it done. The Pirates gladly accepted the 170 innings both of them provided last season, and will gladly accept that many innings again, but they won't do the Pirates much good if they continue to put runners on base at the rate they did in 2011.
There are worse starting rotations than this one out there. Burnett will help, and so will Bedard if he stays healthy. Beyond those two, Pittsburgh's rotation consists of a handful of guys that would be lucky to start on other teams.
The Pirates will take what they can get with this rotation, and then hope their bullpen can clean up.
Scouting the Bullpen
The Pirates had a mediocre bullpen last season. The guys in the pen compiled a 3.76 ERA—one of the lower marks in the National League. They also put way too many guys on base, posting a 1.40 WHIP, the third worst in the NL.
On the bright side, Joel Hanrahan was outstanding. He didn't strike hitters out at the rate he did in 2010, but he kept his walks down and held hitters to an absurdly low .276 slugging percentage. He only blew four saves all season.
However, all four of those came in the second half of the year. Hanrahan was a perfect 26-for-26 in save opportunities before the All-Star break, and 14-of-18 after the break. He walked a few more guys, gave up a few more hits and that resulted in blown saves. It didn't help that he was asked to do a little too much down the stretch.
Still, Hanrahan ranks as one of the top closers in baseball after his breakout season, so he shouldn't be looking over his shoulder as the Pirates work towards Opening Day.
The Pirates absolutely need a bounceback season from Evan Meek. He had an All-Star season in 2010, but was beset by health problems in 2011 and was horribly ineffective when he was on the mound. His WHIP was up in the high 1.00s and his BB/9 was over five.
A healthy Meek will give the Pirates a solid eighth-inning guy, and Jason Grilli and Chris Resop can combine to handle six/seventh territory. Both of them were solid last season, though Resop was a little too hittable.
It would be nice if the Pirates had more lefties, but Clint Hurdle has some good arms to work with. If this bullpen gets a lead, it's going to hold it more often than not.
Scouting the Hitting
Runs did not come easy for the Pirates last season. They scored just 610 runs all season, the third fewest in the National League. They slugged .368 as a team, second worst in the NL.
There are some solid hitters in this lineup, though, and as a whole it has more upside than you might think.
It all revolves around Andrew McCutchen—he had a breakout season last year, living up to his reputation as one of the best young players in baseball. He had an All-Star first half, hitting .291 and slugging over .500. At that point it looked like McCutchen was well on his way to becoming a superstar.
Alas, he couldn't keep it up. McCutchen tailed off after the break, hitting .216/.330/.392. He seemed to get a little homer-happy thanks to his big first half, and that threw him off his game.
The Pirates will be looking for McCutchen to be more consistent this season. If he is, their lineup will have a rock right in the middle of it.
Neil Walker is another guy I like. He looked pretty good in his first full season last year, showing off some good power in the first half and hitting for average in the second half. He tired down the stretch, but right up until August he was having a very good year. If he continues to make strides, he'll be another rock in the middle of Pittsburgh's order.
The Pirates are likely looking at a platoon situation at first base, with Garrett Jones starting against righties and Casey McGehee starting against lefties. Whoever is starting, the Pirates are going to get some good power production out of their two first basemen, as both Jones and McGehee have enough pop to hit 20 home runs each. That mark is definitely not out of reach for Jones, but McGehee will be looking to rebound from a horrible 2011 season in which he just couldn't make solid contact.
The big wild card in this lineup is Pedro Alvarez. He has ability, but he'll be looking to rebound from a lost season in 2011. He was limited to just 74 games, in which he was held under the Mendoza line while showing off virtually no pop. His showing in 2011 was one of the biggest letdowns of the season.
A lot of things will have to go well, but there are plenty of things to like about the middle of this order. McCutchen is a star in the making, Walker is a good young player, Jones and McGehee represent a solid tandem and Alvarez is a player who simply has to break out in the near future.
The rest of the lineup leaves a lot to be desired. It features a mix of inexperienced, unproven youngsters and uninspiring veterans like Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas. The youngsters could surprise us this season, but as a whole this lineup is not exactly rock-solid from top to bottom.
So it all depends on the guys in the middle. I'll wager McCutchen and Walker are going to hit, but they can't be the only ones. If they don't get any support from the rest of the order, the Pirates aren't going to score more runs than they did last year.
There aren't many options to choose from here, so I have to go with the guy who I think has the potential to be this team's ace: A.J. Burnett.
Unfortunately, it sounds like Burnett is going to be on the shelf for a while. He fouled a ball off his face during batting practice, and the word from the Associated Press is that he's going to have surgery to repair a fractured orbital bone. There is no timetable for his return.
Luckily, Burnett's right arm is just fine, and that's good news for the Pirates.
Burnett's reputation precedes him, and that's not a good thing. Everyone agrees he has outstanding stuff, but he doesn't always know where it's going and he tends to make too many mistakes within the strike zone. That explains the high walk numbers and all the home run balls.
But like I mentioned above, getting out of the American League East will help Burnett. He had a couple of good seasons with the Toronto Blue Jays, but Burnett was at his best when he was pitching in the National League with the then Florida Marlins.
Burnett had two seasons in which he pitched over 200 innings with the Marlins, and they were both very good seasons. His walk rates weren't out of control, he kept the ball in the yard, and he was a very good strikeout artist. He posted ERAs in the mid-3.00s in 2002 and 2005, and his FIPs for those two seasons were even better.
Obviously, this was a long time ago. The strange part is that Burnett hasn't lost a whole lot off his fastball. He'll hit 92-93 consistently, and he can still get it up their in the mid-to-upper 90s when he needs to. When he's controlling it, his breaking stuff is unhittable.
So I'm excited to see what Burnett has in store this season. A move back to the NL is exactly what he needs at this point in his career.
UPDATE: Friday, March 2
Rob Biertempfel of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review has reported that Burnett will need 8-12 weeks to recover from surgery to repair an orbital fracture. Tough break for the Pirates, as they likely won't get Burnett back until May.
There's only one guy who can go here, and that's Andrew McCutchen.
Last year was a tale of two seasons for McCutchen. I'll maintain that he let his big first half go to his head, and that affected him in the second half. By the end of the season, he was a mess.
For all the bad, there was plenty of good. The Pirates have to be encouraged by McCutchen's big first half, and they also have to be encouraged by the fact McCutchen's walk rate jumped up to 13.1 percent. It was a modest improvement, but it's a sign that McCutchen is learning patience.
In addition, it seems McCutchen was plagued by a bit of bad luck last season. His BABIP last season was .291, which is curiously low. As evidenced by his career-best .198 ISO, McCutchen hit a lot of balls hard last season, so he really had no business having a BABIP under .300.
Whatever it was, McCutchen should level out this season. He's tasted success, and he's tasted bitter failure. It happens with most young players, and the best always know how to learn from their failures.
My gut tells me McCutchen will be fine.
The Pirates have a lot riding on Pedro Alvarez, so he's the only guy who can go here.
Alvarez looked pretty good when the Pirates called him up in 2010. After a slow start in June, he proceeded to blast seven home runs that July. After cooling off in August, Alvarez finished strong by hitting .311 with a .936 OPS that September.
The true shame of Alavarez's tough season in 2011 is that he was robbed of a lot of development time. As talented as he is, he still has adjustments to make to survive as an everyday player in the majors. Had he made them last season, the Pirates would be starting the season with a two-headed monster in their lineup in the form of Alvarez and McCutchen.
Instead, Alvarez will have to come into his own this season. Hurdle and the Pirates would be wise not to push him. They're best served letting Alvarez hit in the lower third of the order until he proves that he deserves to hit higher.
If Alavarez comes into his own, this lineup will be much deeper and presumably much stronger in the middle. That won't result in a division title, but at the very least the Pirates will know that they have two stud hitters they can count on going forward.
Prospect to Watch
There are actually two Pirates prospects you should be watching.
One is Gerrit Cole, who the Pirates drafted first overall in the 2011 MLB draft. This is going to be his first professional season, so it should be fun to see what he can do.
We already know what Cole has to work with. He's got a nasty fastball and a killer changeup, and his slider isn't bad. He projects as a No. 1 starter, and ESPN's Keith Law already has him down as the No. 10 prospect in the majors.
Jameson Taillon is No. 16 on Law's list. The Pirates drafted him second overall in 2010, and subsequently babied him in his first pro season. Taillon pitched just 92.2 innings in 23 games.
Taillon has ace stuff, but the Pirates aren't going to get an ace in the future unless they let Taillon off the leash. He needs more experience, and it's going to be hard for him to get it if the Pirates limit his innings.
Regardless, we're talking about two ultra-talented pitchers, the likes of which the Pirates haven't seen in a long time. Pirates fans should be excited about these guys.
What the Pirates Will Do Well
The Pirates aren't going to exceed at any one thing in particular, but there are a couple of areas where they appear to be solid.
The additions of Burnett and Bedard will solidify Pittsburgh's rotation. At worst, the two of them make this rotation deeper, which is never a bad thing. I highly doubt that the Pirates are going to dominate on the mound the way they did early in the 2011 season, but this rotation should be capable of greater consistency.
If Meek returns to form, the Pirates will also be solid in the bullpen. Hanrahan is a stud, and the re-emergence of Meek will create a solid bridge to him.
As long as the Pirates have reliable pitching to lean on, they'll be able to avoid disaster.
What the Pirates Won’t Do Well
This lineup is not going to scare anyone.
Yes, there are some solid young players to be found in Pittsburgh's batting order, but it lacks depth and even the stud hitters barely qualify as stud hitters. There are far better lineups than this one out there.
The Pirates should be a better offensive team than they were last year. Even if they are, they're not going to be better than a middle-of-the-pack run-scoring team.
I like where the Pirates are headed, but they have a ways to go before they get to where they want to be.
Nevertheless, the Pirates are not close to the top three teams in this division: Cincinnati, Milwaukee and St. Louis. They'll battle each other for the division crown, leaving the Pirates in the dust.
Projected Record: 75-87, fourth in NL Central.
National League Central
American League Central
National League West
American League West
Zachary D. Rymer is a lifelong baseball junkie with an impressive collection of Nomar Garciaparra rookie cards and a knuckleball that is coming along. He loves the Red Sox and hates the Yankees, but he has a huge man-crush on Derek Jeter and would like nothing more than to have a few beers with Nick Swisher. He's always down to talk some baseball, so feel free to hit him up on Twitter: