Andrew McCutchen swings away
Last season was a disappointing one for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Top prospect Pedro Alvarez fell apart. Injuries knocked out key players, forcing the Pirates to dig deep into the minor leagues for replacements. Overall, Pittsburgh scored fewer runs than nearly any team in the MLB.
A new calendar year grants the Buccos an opportunity to start fresh.
Rod Barajas just does not stack up with the rest of the catchers in the NL Central. While he might hit 15-20 home runs, Barajas brings little else to the plate—although PNC Park is a very difficult place for righties to hit home runs. He has handled some successful pitching staffs in the past. Getting the most out of Pittsburgh’s pitchers may be where Barajas can provide value.
Michael McKenry, a fan favorite for his maximum-effort style, gives the Buccos a solid defensive backup. However, he should not be mistaken for a major-league-caliber bat.
Since Garrett Jones struggles mightily against left-handed pitchers, the Pirates will employ a platoon at first base. Last season, Jones had uncharacteristic difficulties handling sliders. This should not be a worry for Garrett moving forward. He will, however, continue to be a defensive liability.
Casey McGehee followed up strong 2009 and 2010 seasons with a dud in 2011. This was partially due to bad luck (.249 Batting Average on Balls In Play vs. career .290). Regression to the mean alone will lead to improved stats, with potential for recapturing his previous success.
A resurgent McGehee could push Garrett Jones to a limited pinch-hitting role. His defensive track record at first base is nonexistent, but his performance at third base suggests he will not be an improvement over Jones.
By no means a superstar, Neil Walker does give Pittsburgh one of the top offensive second basemen in the National League. In addition, his defense was much improved in his second season as a second baseman.
One cause for concern was an abnormally high ground-ball rate that contributed to a decline in power. If Walker can regain some of the pop he flashed in 2010 and continue to make improvements with the glove, he might make a case for an All-Star selection come midseason.
At this point, third base remains the former top prospect’s to lose.
Last season was atrocious at the plate for Pedro Alvarez. He appeared confused by anything that was not a fastball, suffered through injuries, and was unable to get lift on his hits.
Predicting anything more than a league-average performance from Alvarez would be wishful thinking. His surprisingly solid defense was the only silver lining in 2011.
Clint Barmes continues the long tradition of offensive non-factors at SS for the Buccos. However, he does boast one of the top gloves in the majors. This will be a large boon to a pitching staff that induces a lot of ground balls.
Yamaico Navarro will likely post Barmes-type numbers, but he does have the potential for a breakout year at the plate. Something along the lines of a .280/.330/.400 line is the best-case scenario. Regardless of his offense, Navarro represents a huge downgrade defensively.
Alex Presley exploded on to the scene last year before hitting the DL for 30 games in July and August. Prior to his 2011 success, he projected as a fourth outfielder.
It remains to be seen whether or not he can build off of those successes in 2012. He has shown progress rising through the majors, so continued improvement at the major league level may be part of his natural progression.
If Presley falters, Pittsburgh has a backup option. This offseason, the Pirates brought back a former fan favorite in Nate McLouth. He was dealt away in 2009 following a Gold Glove, All-Star season. McLouth’s career mysteriously went off the rails in Atlanta before injuries knocked him out. If healthy, he could pose a challenge to Presley's starting job, but it’s likely Pittsburgh will give the edge to the younger Presley for as long as possible.
No one has a doubt about who is the true star on this team.
During the first half of 2011, Andrew McCutchen made a strong case for MVP honors. Unfortunately, he, along with the team, struggled following the All-Star break. This meant more of the same great production for the young center fielder, but not the transition to super-stardom that should be expected this year.
At worst, McCutchen will continue to be one of the top five center fielders in baseball; at best, he could become one of the top five overall position players.
Still allegedly just 23 years old, Jose Tabata has two partial seasons of solid play under his belt. This was enough for Pittsburgh to lock him up through 2019.
It’s nearly a guarantee that he will improve upon last season’s numbers, but a big step forward could go a long way toward the Pirates performing above expectations in 2012. A ceiling of .300 with 10 home runs and 30 stolen bases sounds right. The injury bug has haunted Tabata throughout his career and remains the biggest threat to him reaching that ceiling.