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Prediction: The Pirates will finish .500 or better in 2012

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Prediction: The Pirates will finish .500 or better in 2012

Posted on 11 April 2012 by Graham Womack

In this space last week, I wrote that I wasn’t buying the steadfast hype this offseason for the Washington Nationals. I wrote that in the densely-packed National League East, the Nationals would be hard-pressed to reign supreme over the Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, and Philadelphia Phillies. I wrote that if the Nationals played in the NL Central, like the Pittsburgh Pirates, I might project them to win 90 games. Accordingly, it’s time for another prediction.

It’s been 20 years since the Pirates last had a winning season. In the two decades since Francisco Cabrera dumped a bloop single in front of Barry Bonds that sent the Braves to the World Series, Pittsburgh fans have gotten to know a special kind of futility. They’ve had at least 90 losses ten times. Not once in 20 years have they scored 800 runs, though they’ve allowed that many eight times. And Pittsburgh has more or less served as an assembly line for sending talented young players to other teams.

Few teams in baseball history have stayed this bad for this long. The Boston Red Sox had a similar run after Babe Ruth left town. The Philadelphia Phillies had one winning season between 1918 and 1948. But eventually, those teams made it out of their ruts, and this year, I see the Pirates doing likewise. In 2012, I predict the Pirates will finish .500 or better.

It has to happen at some point, right? I see a few reasons why this could be the year. First, the Pirates have assembled a solid, young core. Their pitching staff, while nondescript, managed a 4.04 staff ERA last season and will have A.J. Burnett this year. On offense, Pittsburgh has Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, Pedro Alvarez, and others. Alvarez is a power-hitting third baseman who struggled last year but is still young and comes highly touted. If Tabata can stay healthy, he looks like a potential .300 hitter. And Walker could be among the best second basemen in the National League if he builds on his 2.5 WAR, 12 home runs, and 83 RBI from 2011.

The Pirates also showed they may have learned from their past, giving a six-year, $51 million extension to budding superstar Andrew McCutchen who, after three seasons, looks a lot like a young Barry Bonds. As it was with Bonds, McCutchen’s an All Star outfielder with speed and power, and like Bonds, he posted a 123 OPS+ over his first three seasons. Unlike Bonds, McCutchen may not be going anywhere through his prime years. It’ll be interesting to see if the Pirates continue to build around him.

All of this is moot, though, save for the most important fact here: The Pirates play in the NL Central, baseball’s most dysfunctional division, the Sarajevo of the MLB. It certainly looks to have all the order this year of a post-Soviet kleptocracy. Consider: The Cardinals and Brewers have gone forward without  Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, respectively. The Reds have much of a team in tact that won 91 games in 2010, but never underestimate Dusty Baker’s potential to create chaos. And as for the Cubs and the Astros, they might not even have a winning season in Triple-A.

So mark my words, good things should be happening in Pittsburgh this year, and for what’s it worth, at least one positive already has occurred. The Pirates kicked their season off taking two of three at home against the Phillies.

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Finding Keepers: Pittsburgh Pirates

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Finding Keepers: Pittsburgh Pirates

Posted on 02 March 2012 by Ryan Van Bibber

Whenever I start thinking about keepers, I go straight to the most important minor league team in Major League Baseball: the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates are the talent development operation for the rest of the league, seasoning talented young hitters and pitchers before sending them off to bigger and better things elsewhere. It is “moneyball” in a different sense; the Pirates make money, winning is a secondary pursuit.

Pittsburgh has some interesting names on the roster and waiting in the wings this season. Some are indeed worth one of your precious draft picks. If, er, when they get traded to a good team, those players could really start paying dividends.

Andrew McCutchen, OF – The most obvious of the entire roster and one of the top keeper players in the entire league. Just 25 this season, many expect McCutchen to take a big jump from a very solid 20/20 season in 2011. His batting average suffered thanks to a twenty-point drop in BABIP, but he improved across the board. He walked more too as pitchers realized the threat posed by his bat and the shame of giving up runs to the Pirates. The Pirates’ lineup will have more to say about whether or not he can produce the kind of fantasy stats required from a top hitter, stuff like RBI and runs scored. He has the ability to be a 30/30 player. Unless some team is willing to dump the family farm in Neil Huntington’s lap, the Pirates will not be trading him this year. McCutchen is eligible for arbitration after the season, and will not be a free agent until after 2015. He is the only viable keeper on the Pirates’ roster at this point.

Good, Not Great

Neil Walker, 2B – Walker has value as an acceptable, mostly consistent player in the middle infield. He is tentatively penciled in for the fourth spot in the batting order, something that may change depending on what happens with their two third basemen. This is Walker’s age 26 season. You can count on him for a dozen home runs. With McCutchen hitting in front of him, he can produce some RBI. The Pirates have him locked up through 2016. If they were to trade him to a better team, his counting stats could get a nice boost. Walker might not be the second-best hitter in the Pirates’ lineup by the time the season ends, but he has a certain level of reliability that no other hitter on the roster, outside McCutchen, has.

For Those Willing To Think Young

Alex Presley, OF – Pittsburgh has very little power to speak of in its lineup. A full season of work from Presley would certainly help that. In 231 plate appearances last season, Presley had an .804 OPS with four home runs. What can he do with a full season of plate appearances? If Presley can keep or even improve his .167 ISO, double digit long balls are a possibility. He can also steal 20 bases.

Jose Tabata, OF – Penciled in to lead off the batting order, Tabata needs a full season of health. Tabata is capable of stealing 25 or more stolen bases. He has a solid walk rate, hovering around 10 percent. At the very least, he could be a cheap source of steals and someone to hang onto as he starts to find his stride.

I should probably put some pitchers in here, but the Pirates’ current rotation is led by the merely above average.

Charlie Morton leads the rotation, and he should be ready to go by opening day after offseason hip surgery. His secret to success is keeping the ball on the ground. He earned a big raise in arbitration, going from the league minimum to $2.445 million in 2012.

Joel Hanrahan, the Pirates’ closer, is arguably the best pitching option on the team. I always think that closers on bad teams cannot accumulate saves, a stupid, misguided stereotype. Hanrahan might get 30 or more saves.

As far as minor league prospects go, I have to defer to someone else. They do have some upper tier names among prospects. The Pirates are a regular presence in the top of the draft. They get young players in trades. Yet, they still struggle. Did they only read the first half of “Moneyball”?



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DOs And DONTs: Pittsburgh Pirates

Posted on 18 February 2012 by Mark Sherrard

The Pirates surprised a lot of people by starting the 2011 season with a 56-50 record and contending for the NL Central crown.  However, a 16-40 finish ended any hopes of finishing above .500 for the first time in 19 seasons.

As a result, the Pirates have once again shaken up their roster, with only Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker the main holdovers from last season’s starting lineup.  Here’s a look at the DOs and DON’Ts as it relates to the Pirates revamped roster:

  • DO draft Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker.  Both are solid contributors at their respective positions.  McCutchen put together the first of what may be several 20/20 season last year, finishing with 23 homeruns and stolen bases.  While Walker hit 12 homeruns, drove in 83 and scored 76.  Not bad for a second baseman.  However, despite their abilities to help your fantasy team…
  • DON’T overdraft McCutchen or Walker.  McCutchen might be worth taking in the 4th or 5th round in mixed leagues and Walker should go in the teens.
  • DO draft Alex Presley as your 3rd or 4th outfielder.  He has some speed and some pop and could go for 15 homeruns and 20 stolen bases.  He also has the ability to hit for average and, at the top of the Pirates order, he should score some runs.
  • DON’T expect a return to his 2010 form from Casey McGehee.  While I don’t think he’ll be as bad as he was in 2011, when he hit .223/.280/.346, I also think his .285/.337/.464 season in 2010 was probably his career year.  The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.
  • I DO like Jose Tabata, even though he has yet to display any of the power that was expected of him.  He is another outfielder who will not hurt your batting average and can give you 15-20 stolen bases.
  • I DON’T like anyone else in the Pirates starting lineup.  Garrett Jones (1B), Clint Barmes (SS) and Rod Barajas (C) do not do much for me and should be considered utility/bench players in NL only leagues and injury replacements, at best, in mixed leagues.
  • DO expect better things from James McDonald.  After a rough first half of 2011, when he posted a 4.42 ERA while walking 4.5 per 9 IP, he turned things around in the second half, posting a 3.93 ERA and only walking 3.6 per 9 IP.  If he can continue to make improvements with his command, he is a potential breakout candidate.
  • DON’T expect a repeat from Jeff Karstens.  Karstens surprised a lot of people by going 7-4 with a 2.55 ERA in the first half of 2011.  But with a hit rate around 24% and a strand rate of 87%, smart owners knew to sell high on him and he proved them right by finishing with a second half ERA of 4.66.  Expect more of the same in 2011 as, frankly, he just isn’t that good.
  • DO take Joel Hanrahan as your primary closer.  As far as closers go, he is about as solid as they come.  He had 40 saves last year to go with a 1.83 ERA.  While his ERA for 2012 might not be that low, he should still be able to rack up a good number of saves, as the Pirates do not have an explosive offense and thus will likely be involved in a lot of close games.
  • DON’T expect more than 140 innings out of Erik Bedard (and that might even be a bit generous).  Bedard has been hit with injuries each of the last 3 seasons, with his high water mark for innings pitched being 129 from last year.  While he has been pretty good, while healthy, he is not the kind of guy to build a staff around, i.e. make sure you have a backup plan for when, not if, he gets hurt.
  • DO avoid the other Pirates starters.  Neither Charlie Morton nor Kevin Correia is going to help your team much and should only be considered in deep NL only leagues.
  • DON’T forget about Pedro Alvarez.  After a horrible year in 2011, the former 2nd overall pick in the 2008 draft is trying to regain his confidence and that of the team.  The Pirates acquired Casey McGehee to give themselves another option at third, but Alvarez still has a ton of upside and the Pirates are hoping that he stakes his claim to the third base job this spring.

Finally, DO take a close look at recent addition A.J. Burnett. Although he hasn’t fared well the last couple years in the AL, he makes his return to the “weaker” NL, where he posted a 3.73 ERA in 7 seasons. He should improve over last year’s 5.15 ERA, if only because he will be facing a pitcher at least once a game.

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