10 Pittsburgh Pirates Who Will Play a Crucial Role in the Playoff Chase

Andrew Kaufman@akaufman23Senior Analyst IJuly 12, 2012

10 Pittsburgh Pirates Who Will Play a Crucial Role in the Playoff Chase

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    The Pirates' excellent start to the 2012 season has been fueled more by key performances from its best players than by overall team depth. If the Bucs are to continue their run all the way to a playoff berth, these performances will have to continue.

    Only four Pirate hitters and two starting pitchers who have received significant playing time this season have performed well above league average for their position. A rotating cast of journeymen (#DREWSUTTON, anyone?) has filled many of the other spots.

    While strong recent performances at weaker positions have contributed to the latest Pittsburgh hot streak, the Bucs cannot count on this level of production over on extended period of time. Instead, their elite players must carry the team through October.

    The following 10 players will determine whether the Pirates make the playoffs this season.

Andrew McCutchen

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    The National League MVP candidate will need to sustain his All-Star level, as the Pittsburgh offense has relied on him for several stretches this season.

    McCutchen is putting up otherworldly numbers right now—he leads the league in batting average and his 1.039 OPS is second only to Joey Votto—and he should see some fall-off in the second half. His .407 BABIP speaks to a likely regression as well.

    Yet even if McCutchen's performance declines in the second half he can still be one of the best ten players in the league. His first-half performance was that good.

    Last season, McCutchen got off to a hot start (though not this hot) before fading in the second half. His fade was a big factor in the Pirates' awful August and September performances. The Bucs cannot afford to see his production decline again.

Pedro Alvarez

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    While Pedro Alvarez has been the Pirates' best power-hitter this season, he has also been their streakiest player. The Bucs need him to be more consistent in the second half.

    To his credit, Alvarez is already making strides in this area. He was probably the streakiest player in all of baseball over the season's first six weeks, but since then Alvarez's performance has evened out some as his batting average and OBP have climbed upward.

    Alvarez has also surprised many doubters with an above-average performance in the field. If he can keep up his strong defensive play, the Pirates will gain value from an unexpected source.

    If Alvarez can continue to even out his play while raising his OBP to the .330-.340 area, he will be one of the most valuable Pirates down the stretch.

Neil Walker

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    Walker's role as the primary table-setter for McCutchen, Alvarez, and Garrett Jones makes him a vital member of the 2012 Pirates.

    While Alvarez and Jones have put together strong overall seasons thus far, neither sports an on-base percentage above .310. Walker's ability to get on base (.357 OBP) has given the Bucs some much-needed offensive balance.

    Walker is another player who some thought was out of position on defense, yet he too as performed above average at second base. Walker and Alvarez's defensive performances have increased the overall value of the Bucs' infield.

    While Walker seems due for some regression, his BABIP over the last three seasons has been well over .300. He needs to continue to get on base for the Pirates to make the playoffs.

Michael McKenry

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    McKenry's out-of-nowhere performance from the catcher position has helped the Pirates offset poor play from their first basemen and corner outfielders. It would be a huge boost to the Pittsburgh offense if McKenry could continue his current run.

    According to FanGraphs, McKenry has been the second best offensive performer on the Pirates. As a backup catcher. His power production was completely unexpected, and it would be surprising to see him continue this pace, but even league-average numbers from McKenry would be a huge help for the Bucs.

    The Fort has been taking more playing time from Rod Barajas of late, and given his 2012 performance this is likely to continue. If McKenry can come anywhere close to sustaining his first-half production in greater playing time, the Bucs' offense will instantly improve.

Starling Marte

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    Regardless of Neal Huntington's performance on the trade market this summer, the Pirates will likely still have a hole to field in their outfield. Marte, the team's top hitting prospect, can fill that hole.

    Marte has improved his two areas of focus—plate discipline and power—this season, increasing his chances of being and above-average everyday player. Though he still has a lot of room to grow (his 6.3 percent walk rate in 2012 is the highest of his career), his bat speed and defensive abilities make him a likely contributor from day one.

    If Marte can show some level of plate discipline in addition to all the skills he already possesses, he can be a difference-maker for this Pittsburgh team. Look for him to join the Pirates by the middle of August.

James McDonald

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    The Pirates' pitching performance has actually been rather top-heavy this season, with McDonald the team's clear ace. The Bucs need him to continue his breakout season.

    McDonald has always had the potential to put together a season like this, and after adding a slider to his arsenal in the offseason he had finally hit his stride. The Pirate ace has put together several key performances en route to a FIP below 3.00.

    McDonald's strikeout and walk numbers are both strong, so he is not expected to regress too much. The main concern with McDonald is his ability to pitch deep into games over a full season. He has never pitched more than 171 innings in a season.

    If McDonald can sustain his performance through October, the Pirates will have the big-game pitcher they need.

A.J. Burnett

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    While James McDonald has been the Pirates' best pitcher this season, he has not been their only reliable starter. Aside from one terrible start against the Cardinals, Burnett has performed at an All-Star level throughout the season's first half.

    The Yankee cast-off has always had the talent to be an elite major league pitcher, and a move to Pittsburgh and out of the A.L. East seems to be just what the doctor ordered. His walk rate is his lowest since 2006, and there are no signs that Burnett will regress.

    Burnett has also enhanced his reputation as a light-hearted clubhouse leader this season, and he gets a lot of credit for the Pirates' ability to handle success up to this point. His role off the field will be nearly as important as his performance on it if the Pirates are coping with the pressures of contention in September.

    Burnett recently stated how proud he is to be pitching well for the Pirates. If he can keep this performance up, he may pitch in the playoffs this year.

Jeff Karstens

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    Karstens has the potential to add significant depth to a Pittsburgh rotation that is in severe need of it. He has performed well since returning from injury, and if he keeps up this level of play he will provide the Bucs with the No. 3 pitching option that Erik Bedard was supposed to be.

    Karstens traditionally has walked very few batters while also striking out a low number, but in three starts since returning from injury he has managed to buck that trend. This is a very small sample size, however Karstens only needs to be good, not excellent, to have a big impact for the Pirates.

    The biggest issue for Karstens may be whether he can stay on the field. If he remains healthy and dependable, the Pittsburgh pitching will look a lot better.

Jason Grilli

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    Grilli has been one of the best relief pitchers in the league this season, and his dominant performances remain critical to the Pirates' success.

    The former Phillie has shut down opposing offenses night in and night out, racking up 14.4 K/9 before handing the ball over to Joel Hanrahan. He has become the go-to guy for the Pirates in the late innings.

    Many Pirate relievers are expected to regress in the second half of the season, so it is important for Grilli to keep up his level of play. If Grilli and Hanrahan pitch well down the stretch, the Bucs will be able to overcome lesser performances from players like Juan Cruz and Jared Hughes.

Brad Lincoln

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    As good as Grilli and Hanrahan are, the Pirates' bullpen has the potential to be even better. Brad Lincoln has pitched extremely well out of the 'pen this season, and he can join the two veterans to create a three-headed monster down the stretch.

    Despite stats that are weighed down by poor numbers in four starts, Lincoln posts an outstanding K/BB rate and a FIP of nearly 3.50. The former first-round pick has also shown that he is not afraid of big moments, stepping up in several high-leverage situations this year.

    Lincoln's strong play has made him a subject of trade talks with the Diamondbacks and Padres. If he remains a Pirate, their bullpen will be a force to be reckoned with.