It's spring training, and as the old saying goes, everyone is tied for first place. This means in Pittsburgh hope springs eternal, even after 19 consecutive losing seasons. The Pirates showed signs of improvement last season, securing a spot atop of the division as late as July 25. However, their season quickly unraveled from there, securing another sub .500 year.
Pittsburgh is more than likely in store for the twentieth losing season in a row at the end of this year, but that's not to say there aren't interesting stories to follow in the "Steel City" this summer.
Here are five questions that will be burning in Pittsburgh all season long.
1. Will Pittsburgh finish above .500?
2. Will the Pirates be able to lock up Andrew McCutchen to a long-term deal?
While Pittsburgh won't be contending for the NL Central Crown in the immediate future, Neal Huntington has done a fantastic job turning a barren Pirates farm system into one rich with prospects. ESPN's Keith Law has the Pirates' system ranked as eighth overall in Major League Baseball. This means in two-to-three years Pittsburgh will be looking to bring all of that high-end talent to the diamond. It would be criminal not to have a centerpiece player like Andrew McCutchen locked up at a reasonable price before then.
Cincinnati's Jay Bruce (6 years, $51 million) and Arizona's Justin Upton (6 years, $51 million) are comparable high-end talent that was locked up through their arbitration years and into free agency. Pittsburgh needs to follow suit and make signing 'Cutch through his first few free agent years a top priority this summer.
3. What will free agent acquisitions A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard be able to provide Pittsburgh this season?
Pittsburgh's pitching staff finished last in the National League in strikeouts last year. The 'Buccos are hoping to improve that number significantly with the addition of two hurlers that both have 200+ strikeout seasons on their resumes. Obviously both players are far removed from those monster seasons and each come with his own gigantic question marks, but AJ Burnett's 8.2 K/9 and Erik Bedard's 9 K/9 in limited action last year both would have topped any Pittsburgh starter in 2011. Regardless of health (Bedard) or consistency (Burnett), there will be some value from both these starters in 2012.
4. Will Pedro Alvarez develop into a top talent in the middle of Pittsburgh's lineup?
Alvarez had the support of Pirates management to not play winter ball this offseason. That probably doesn't make Pirates fans feel any more confident about a rebound year going into 2012. However, early word on the street is that Alvarez has worked himself into physical shape, which has to have fans and management alike a little more excited than last year.
A key to Pittsburgh's current and future success, Alvarez needs to turn into the 30 home run monster that Pittsburgh drafted with the number two overall pick in 2008.
5. Will Joel Hanrahan and Neil Walker continue to maintain their new-found levels of success?
A raw fireballer with control issues and catcher-turned-second baseman, Hanrahan and Walker didn't take the easy path to the majors. However, they have already established themselves as fan-favorites in Pittsburgh. Walker's numbers dipped a bit last year as he was exposed to 159 games, but he has a more than serviceable bat and is progressing defensively.
Hanrahan avoided arbitration this year, agreeing to a $4.1 million, one year contract and if he can maintain status quo, it will serve as a more than reasonable bargain. He could become a very movable player this season if Pittsburgh decides to add a few more pieces to help usher in the Cole/Taillon/Marte era, or they could look to lock him down at a reasonable price for the short term to move later.
Considering their improbable start last season, expectations may be a little higher than usual in the 'Burgh this summer. Temper your expectations, however, and enjoy the ride towards the 2014-2015 seasons the best you can.