Pittsburgh Pirates: Why This Year's Team Will Keep Winning

Allan SmithContributor IIIJune 20, 2012

Pittsburgh Pirates: Why This Year's Team Will Keep Winning

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    The 2011 Pirates stunned the world for the first half of last season, rising from relative obscurity to be in first place in July, only to fall to 72-90 by season's end, finishing a distant fourth in the NL Central.

    At the start of the day on June 20th, 2011, the Pirates were 35-36. One year later, the Buccos find themselves at 35-31.

    This year's version of the Bucs is building off the successes of the early parts of last year.

    But will they avoid the same fate as their predecessors? Over the next few slides, I'll explain just why this year's Pirates team has what it takes to finish the deal.

Lineup

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    June, 2011

    LF: Jose Tabata

    3B: Brandon Wood/Josh Harrison

    2B: Neil Walker

    CF: Andrew McCutchen

    RF: Garrett Jones

    1B: Lyle Overbay

    SS: Ronny Cedeno

    C: Mike McKenry

    June, 2012

    LF: Alex Presley

    RF: Jose Tabata

    CF: Andrew McCutchen

    1B: Garrett Jones/Casey McGehee

    2B: Neil Walker

    3B: Pedro Alvarez

    C: Rod Barajas

    SS: Clint Barmes

     

    While the Pirates offense is scoring fewer runs then they were at this point last year, this year's lineup is better then what it was last year at this time.

    A year ago, the Bucs were getting no production from third base, catcher, and first base. Players like Brandon Wood and Lyle Overbay provided little substance.

    This year's lineup is actually getting much more production from those positions.

    The Garrett Jones/Casey McGehee platoon has accounted for 10 homers and 38 RBI while having a combined OPS over .700. Overbay, last year's first basemen, only had a .667 OPS before the All-Star break with six homers and 34 RBI.

    Jones and McGehee still have time this year to build on their numbers before that juncture.

    Even though Pedro Alvarez has been inconsistent, what he has provided is leaps and bounds above what Brandon Wood and Josh Harrison produced at this same time last year. Alvarez' 12 homers are as many as Pirates third basemen had total last season. His .739 OPS puts Wood's putrid .607 to shame.

    Catcher Rod Barajas has provided the game-calling abilities that McKenry was providing at this point last year, yet Barajas has six homers and a .657 OPS to attach to his name; McKenry was sporting just a .607 OPS.

    There is a reason McKenry is the backup this year.

    Even though Walker and Tabata were performing better at this point last season, and Cedeno had better offensive numbers then Clint Barmes so far, I still give the edge to this year's lineup based on the slight improvements at first and the major improvement at third.

Rotation

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    June, 2011

    SP: Kevin Correia

    SP: Paul Maholm

    SP: Charlie Morton

    SP: James McDonald

    SP: Jeff Karstens

    June, 2012

    SP: Erik Bedard

    SP: James McDonald

    SP: A.J. Burnett

    SP: Kevin Correia

    SP: Brad Lincoln

    A vastly improved James McDonald offsets Kevin Correia, who is pitching worse than he did in 2011.

    Morton was 7-3 with a 3.21 ERA at this time last year, and now he's out for the season after starting 2-6 with a 4.65 ERA. Yet, A.J. Burnett's strong numbers offset the loss of an effective Morton.

    Karstens has been injured all year but should be returning shortly, and the rotation surely could use a boost since Lincoln has proved to be an ineffective starter.

    Bedard, who was brought in to replace Maholm as the staff lefty, has actually performed worse then Maholm had to this point last year, even though Bedard has much better strikeout numbers.

    Up until this point in 2011, the Pirates rotation performed better than this year's version.

    Yet, with Karstens on the road back from injury and the potential promotion of Rudy Owens or Jeff Locke on the horizon, this year's rotation will continue to improve and avoid the collapse that hit last year's staff—a collapse mainly caused by fatigue, as all five starters pitched injury free for the entire first half of the season.

Bullpen

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    June, 2011

    RP: Dan McCutchen

    RP: Tony Watson

    RP: Danny Moskos

    RP: Tim Wood

    RP: Chris Resop

    SU: Jose Veras

    CP: Joel Hanrahan

    June, 2012

    RP: Chris Resop

    RP: Doug Slaten

    RP: Tony Watson

    RP: Jared Hughes

    RP: Juan Cruz

    SU: Jason Grilli

    CP: Joel Hanrahan

     

    While difficult to maintain the perfection he was carrying through the first half of last season, Hanrahan has still been dominant as the closer, blowing only two saves while managing a 3-0 record.

    Grilli and Cruz have been major improvements as set-up men; they have produced much better numbers then Veras and Resop did last year. The emergence of Cruz has also allowed Resop to pitch earlier in games, providing a solid arm for the middle innings.

    The two lefties in the pen are virtually a wash, but you have to figure that an added year of experience was beneficial to Tony Watson, even though his numbers are slightly off from what they were last season.

    Finally, Jared Hughes has been a surprising young addition to an already deep bullpen and has an ERA nearly four runs lower then Tim Wood had.

    Overall, while last year's bullpen consisted mainly of guys overachieving, this year's version is deeper, contains more power arms and should continue it's success beyond July.

Fielding

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    June, 2011

    C: Mike McKenry

    1B: Lyle Overbay

    2B: Neil Walker

    3B: Brandon Wood/Josh Harrison

    SS: Ronny Cedeno

    LF: Jose Tabata

    CF: Andrew McCutchen

    RF: Garrett Jones

    June, 2011

    C: Rod Barajas

    1B: Garrett Jones/Casey McGehee

    2B: Neil Walker

    3B: Pedro Alvarez

    SS: Clint Barmes

    LF: Alex Presley

    CF: Andrew McCutchen

    RF: Jose Tabata

    Barajas vs. McKenry behind the plate was essentially a wash, the Jones-McGehee platoon has actually played much better defense then expected, certainly outplaying last year's first baseman, Overbay.

    Cedeno was having a tremendous defensive season last year and performed better than what Barmes has up to this point. However, Barmes' numbers are skewed from early season struggles in the field.

    Alvarez has provided an improvement over Wood and Harrison, who both struggled at times at the hot corner.

    This year's outfield is the fastest in all of baseball and has caught nearly every single fly ball hit out of the infield, providing the pitching staff with the confidence needed to pitch all over the plate.

    Last year's version was pretty good as well, but this year's outfield with three speedsters takes the cake.

Bench

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    June, 2011

    C: Dusty Brown

    OF: Matt Diaz

    INF: Brandon Wood/Josh Harrison

    OF: Xavier Paul

    INF: Chase D'Arnaud

    June, 2012

    C: Mike McKenry

    3B/1B/OF: Casey McGehee/Garrett Jones

    INF/OF: Josh Harrison

    INF: Jordy Mercer

    1B: Matt Hague

    McKenry was starting over Brown last year while both Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit were hurt, so obviously having him on the bench now is an improvement over Brown, who could barely bat over .100.

    Both Jones and McGehee are an improvement over Diaz, who couldn't even hit one homer for the Bucs last year and was traded away by the end of August.

    This bench does lack a player like Paul, who can fill in at centerfield, but Harrison has been able to produce offensively off the bench, particularly of late. Typically, the Pirates get no offensive production from these slots—not at least since Matt Stairs graced PNC Park.

    Mercer hasn't gotten much of an opportunity yet, but he did pass up D'Arnaud in Triple A.

    Hague gives Hurdle another usable bat off of the bench with potential to grow.

Conclusion

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    Overall, it is clear that while last year's team shocked the world and performed over their heads only to fall off in the later months, this year's team has improved on last year's both in terms of depth and ability.

    With all five aspects of the team showing improvement in some way or another over last year's version, it's clear that the Pirates will have a much better chance at maintaining a winning record.

    As long as the Bucs can keep up their recent level of play while being able to recover from short losing streaks (such as the recent four-gamer vs. Baltimore and Cleveland) these Pirates will end the curse of Sid Bream.