With each spring, hope begins anew. As the trees and flowers begin to display their foliage, even the Pirates allow themselves to dream. Even for a franchise that hadn’t seen a winning record in 16 years, the fresh air brought optimism to the Steel City.
Could this be the year that their pitching staff fulfills their promise? Could Freddy Sanchez rebound, Ryan Doumit duplicate, Nate McLouth improve, and the “brothers LaRoche” infuse some power into an anemically weak lineup?
Joe Kerrigan, the new Pirates pitching coach, was hired to mentor the Pirates’ young hurlers. And, it was working early.
Paul Malholm, the default staff ace, proclaimed "the guys have all bought in. Whenever Joe says something, he has either stats or video or experience to back it up. That goes a long way with a lot of guys. He's a different bird, but he knows his stuff.''
It seemed to be working. The spunky team got off to a great start and found itself at 11-7 after a 8-3 win against Jake Peavy. Zach Duke was starting to look like the dominant pitcher he was two years ago.
Even Ian Snell found the strike zone every now and then. The offense was also doing its part, and had scored 91 runs in 18 games. Could this finally be the year?
Then, injuries started to take their toll quickly. First, Ryan Doumit went down. Then Jack Wilson sprained his finger. Even their underrated closer, Matt Capps, started having elbow problems.
The promising start has given way to a 1-8 month of May that has seen the Pirates drop to 12-19 after losing 12 of their last 13 games.
So, we find ourselves back in reality. The following “First 30 Days” Bucco Awards go to…
This guy is a doubles machine. The 2006 N.L. batting champion had a rough 2008. His batting average was almost 30 points below his career norm with half as many extra base hits.
He looks like he’s feeling good again. He’s hitting .317 with a .885 OPS, and already has thirteen doubles in twenty-eight games.
Unfortunately for the Pirates, when your most dominant hitter is a scrappy second baseman, you may be in trouble.
RUNNER UP: Nate McLouth
I was a doubter. This guy was mainly a base stealer with very little “pop” coming up through the minors, so you’ll have to excuse my shock at his twenty-six dingers last year. This guy led the league in doubles and also stole twenty-three bases.
While his base swipes are down this year, all the other numbers point to another great year (.292-5-22, .378 OBP).
I had given up on the big lefty. After his promising rookie season when he went 8-2 with a 1.81 ERA, I thought we had found the southpaw we needed to resurrect the staff.
Then, he just started getting hammered. Over the last three seasons, Zach had gone 18-37 and given up an astounding 646 hits and 140 walks in a little over 500 innings. That gives a whole other definition of the term WHIP.
Joe Kerrigan seems to have gotten through. In Zach’s first 40+ innings he has given up less than a hit per frame and his strikeout to walk ratio is better than 2:1.
Batters are only hitting a little over .250 against him and he has three out of the Pirates twelve wins.
RUNNER UP: Paul Maholm
Another crafty left hander, Paul was their best pitcher last year with nine wins and a sub 4.00 ERA. While walks have been a problem, he got off to a 3-0 start, although he has struggled lately.
This is a man who gets on base. A LOT. While he’s not going to hit for any power, Nyjer is a great leadoff hitter that can steal bases, and has decent plate discipline.
His career stats will tell you he’s going to hit .300 with an OBP of .360, an steal 40 bases. So far, he’s hitting .301 with a .376 OBP and has already swiped nine bags. So far, so good.
RUNNER UP: Andy LaRoche
When you enter the season with a .184 lifetime average over three hundred official at bats, not a lot is expected. However, this highly touted prospect has showed some signs this year of coming through.
Although he’s only hitting .253 with a .715 OPS, he has smacked nine doubles and has cut down on his strikeouts.
He has the talent. I’m not sure he has the confidence though. Snell regressed last year after posting 23 wins over the previous two seasons. Last year, both his walk and hit totals sky-rocketed, and this year has been much of the same (1-5, 4.50 ERA, 24 walks in 40 innings).
You cannot win in the big leagues if you give up a lot of homers AND walk a ton of guys. That leads to a ton of big innings. Although he can crank his darting fastball into the mid-90s and has a nice complementary curveball, he has been unable to put it together.
RUNNER UP: Adam LaRoche
He continues to struggle against southpaws and strikes out way too much. While slow starts have been the norm for him, you simply cannot have your run producer with only fourteen batted in and a slugging percentage of .429.
As we continue to watch Brandon Moss and Craig Monroe in the outfield, it’s hard to feel optimistic. But worry not, there's buried treasure in the Pirates farm.
Andrew McCutchen is ready. He’s a five-tool player with terrific athletic ability to go along with plus bat speed and good pitch recognition.
Last year, McCutchen finished eighth among Triple-A hitters with 34 stolen bases, though he also led that group by being caught 19 times. He also finished extremely strong, hitting .324 with a .415 OBP and seven steals in August.
He has struggled a bit this year hitting .257 with only one homer, but has still walked more than he has struck out (12-10), and has not been caught stealing through five attempts.
This was expected to be a rough year. It’s never a good recipe when you combine weak hitting with young, hittable pitching.
While the Pirates surprised a bit early on, major league baseball has a way of smashing your head on the wall of reality over the long season.
Unfortunately for the John Russell and the Pirates, there doesn’t seem to be much help on the way.