To fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates, next year has always been the year the team would break through with a winning record. Well, next year is now.
When trying to figure out if the Bucs can make a move towards baseball relevance, we must first determine what went wrong with them last year.
Sometimes, statistics can tell the story. Usually, a club can rank near the bottom of a particular stat, and still have a great team. When you rank near the bottom of several categories, as the 2011 Pirates did, it can prove to be disastrous.
As a pitching staff, the Bucs were 28th out of 30 teams in the majors in both strikeouts (1,031) and batting average against (.270). They were 25th in quality starts (78) as well.
The signature acquisition of this past offseason was A.J. Burnett, the former Yankee starter. It appears at first glance that he might be a significant upgrade over the man he replaced, Paul Maholm.
Based on last season's numbers, Burnett beats Maholm only in strikeouts per nine innings and total starts. Maholm posted more quality starts and had a lower era (by 1.5 runs), more innings per start and fewer bases on balls per start. While I realize that past performance is not always indicative of future results, sometimes it can be.
As a hitting team, Pittsburgh tied for third-most in strikeouts with 1,308. They were also 27th in total bases, 26th in hits and 27th in runs. In fact, the only offensive category in which the Bucs achieved a top ten ranking was triples.
Clint Barmes takes over at shortstop for Ronny Cedeno this year. Statistically, these two were very similar in most hitting categories last year. Barmes had much better home run numbers, struck out less and drew more walks.
In the field, the Bucs finished with 112 errors, which ranked 23rd in the league. Barmes and Cedeno each finished with a .978 fielding percentage. However, it could be argued that Cedeno has better range in the field.
Ex-Brewer Casey McGehee is probably going to platoon at first and at third base. If Pedro Alvarez falters again in 2012, McGehee will most likely get most of the work at third. When compared to the committee approach the Bucs took at the position last year, McGehee actually had a worse fielding percentage (.942) and batting average (.223) than the committee (.947 and .224).
Perhaps the most important impact Burnett, Barmes and McGehee will have on this team is in the form of intangibles such as leadership, and a better clubhouse atmosphere. This is something that statistics can't measure, and it should not be discounted.
The team should also benefit from the maturity of many of the young position players who were pressed into service earlier than anticipated. This should help cut down the strikeout numbers and mean more hits as well.
The big question mark will still be the rotation, which faltered in the second half of the season last year. The Pirates most likely will not be ready to make a move towards the playoffs this year because of it.
The bullpen is a strength, and the depth on the bench will be improved. The Bucs will flirt with the .500 mark, making for a very real chance that they can end their streak of 19 straight losing seasons.