2011 Pittsburgh Pirates: A promising young group of hitters paints a silver lining on the the darkest cloud in baseball.

2010 Record: 57-105, 6th NL Central
2010 Prediction: 62-100, 6th NL Central
Diff: 5
2011 Prediction: 5th NL Central

Impact Player: 3B Pedro Alvarez
Impact Pitcher: RHP James McDonald
Best Reliever: RHP Joel Hanrahan
Top Prospect: RHP Jameson Taillon

General Manager: Neal Huntington
Manager: Clint Hurdle (1st Season)

Significant Acquisitions:
RHP Kevin Correia, 1B Lyle Overbay, OF Matt Diaz, INF Josh Rodriguez, LHP Scott Olsen

Significant Departures:
OF Lastings Milledge, 3B/1B Andy LaRoche, 2B/OF Delwyn Young, INF Akinori Iwamura, C/1B Jeff Clement, LHP Zach Duke, LHP Javier Lopez, RHP Brendan Donnelly, RHP Chan Ho Park, LHP Wil Ledezma

AIMLESS MINI-RANT DISCLAIMER: Seriously marketing team, do away with the red already.  You’re ruining one of the best logo/nicknames in pro sports with your tackiness.  There’s nothing wrong with just plain black and yellow.  In fact, it’s one of the best colour combos going.  Just get rid of it.  Maybe then you’ll start winning.

The Pirates haven’t had a winning season since I was just entering grade three.  I remember when the team had Barry Bonds and was winning games.  I even remember watching that game in the 1992 NLCS against the Braves where the Braves clinched their second straight NL pennant only to lose to the Jays in the World Series.  But only very vaguely.  And likely only because there were implications for my Blue Jays.

18 consecutive losing season is a mark that few franchises in professional sports history can lay claim to.  Every year, hardened and probably mostly apathetic Pirates’ fans hope that this is the year the franchise starts to turn around, but usually it’s worse.  Last year, the Pirates were the worst team in baseball finishing with 105 loses, finishing last in the NL Central for the fourth straight year, the fifth time in six years and the ninth time since the lockout.  For all the terrible seasons the Pirates have gone through, the 2010 team had the most loses in a single season since the franchise’s last year as the Pittsburgh Alleghenys in 1890!

But, for the first time in probably a decade, Pirates’ fans have something to be hopeful for.  The emergence of several young stars including Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata have formed the best young core of players in a very long time.  When pitching prospects such as Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie start knocking on the major league door, the Pirates may be primed for a long overdue return to contention.  It won’t happen in 2011, but by 2013 or 2014, we might see a winner in the Steel City.

Starting Rotation
As bad as the Pirates were last season, they actually outperformed their Pythagorean record by four wins.  Their pitching allowed more runs than any other team in the NL and they also scored fewer runs than any other team.  For all the promise that lies in the Pirates lineup, their pitching staff is scarily thin.  It will be a few years before Taillon and Allie make an impact so the Pirates will have to try and find a way to get the most out of a cast of pitchers that would struggle to win in AAA.

Their top pitcher heading into the year appears to be James McDonald who was acquired in a trade along with outfielder/first baseman Andrew Lambo for Octavio Dotel.  That trade will end up being a stroke of genius as McDonald could end up being a solid number-three starter on a good team.  After the trade, he posted a 2.91 FIP in 11 starts with the Pirates.

The former lefty tandem of Paul Maholm and Zach Duke the has graced the top of the Pirates crappy rotation for years was broken up this offseason when the Pirates dealt the underachieving Duke to Arizona.  Maholm is still here and will need to improve on his 2010 numbers if he wants to stick around.  He posted a 5.10 ERA but did post a slightly better (although still not good) 4.18 FIP.

The rest of the rotation is by no means set in stone.  It’s likely that former Giant and Padre Kevin Correia will be slotted in, but the fact the he posted a 5.40 ERA and 4.71 FIP while pitching half of his games in the friendliest pitcher’s park in the game last year does not bode well.

Ross Ohlendorf was once very highly touted after being acquired from the Yankees, but like so many Pirates players, he didn’t live up to the hype.  He’s now 28-years-old and is coming off a 1-11 season with a 4.44 FIP.  He still has a good shot at this rotation simply because of a lack of options.

The same goes for Charlie Morton who had an equally terrible 2-12 record last season to go along with a vomit-inducing 7.57 ERA and 5.29 FIP.  His 1.69 HR/9 rate was 6th worst in the NL among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched.  Another starting candidate, Daniel McCutchen was one of the five who were worse with a 1.73 HR/9 rate.

Left-hander Scott Olsen recently made tiny waves by suggesting he should either be in the starting rotation or the Pirates should trade him.  This was kind of an off statement from someone who has never shown any consistent ability at the major-league level.  Although he has a shot, the lack of left-handed presence in the bullpen likely means he’ll end up there.

Jeff Karstens, Tony Watson, Brad Lincoln and non-roster invites Brian Burres, Sean Gallagher, and Fernando Nieve could also be given a shot to win a spot in either the rotation or the bullpen.

Bullpen
With Matt Capps and Octavio Dotel now gone, Joel Hanrahan should finally get his shot at closing for the Pirates.  Hanrahan posted an impressive 2.62 FIP last season mainly because of a ridiculous 12.92 K/9 rate.  He heads up a group that actually looks decent on paper.

Three other right-handers are essentially locks for spots in the ‘pen.  Evan Meek is a flame-thrower who keeps the ball on the ground and posted a 3.45 FIP last season; while Chris Resop and Chris Leroux both looked impressive in short stints at the major-league level last year.  Leroux’s 6.75 ERA is deceiving as he put up the peripherals that led to a 3.56 FIP in that time.

The rest of the bullpen will likely be made up of pitchers who fall out of the rotation competition, but Jose Ascanio, Mike Crotta, Kevin Hart, and left-hander Daniel Moskos are 40-man guys who have a shot.

Non-roster invitees that could crack the ‘pen include righties Jose Veras and Tyler Walker and lefties Joe Beimel and Justin Thomas.

Catchers
Ryan Doumit has fallen out of favour with Pirates’ management and was so bad defensively last year that the team tried moving him to the outfield.  Although he’s never been a good defensive catcher, Doumit wasn’t embarrassing himself at the position until last season and his offensive numbers are still pretty good for a catcher.  Last year, despite all the bad press, Doumit had a .251/.333/.406 slash line to go along with 13 homeruns and a .326 wOBA.  Not amazing numbers, but certainly numbers that project better as a catcher than as a right fielder.

The Pirates, however, seem content with starting Chris Snyder at catcher this season, which seems ridiculous since he’s not much better than Doumit defensively and had an awful .207/.320/.376 slash line last year.  At worst, these two should split time behind the plate.

Jason Jaramillo is also in the fold, but has yet to figure out how to hit and is appears as though he never will.

Infielders
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez is about to explode into all-out stardom.  After his call up from AA last season, Alvarez posted an acceptable .256/.326/.461 slash line and clubbed 16 homeruns.  He’s probably destined for first base at some point, but his overall ceiling is among the best of any young player in the game.  Alvarez hitting 30 homeruns this season is by no means a stretch.

At second base, the Pirates have another potential stud in converted third baseman Neil Walker.  He was an embarrassment defensively last year, but scouts point to his overall range as a reason to be hopeful that he can at least be average at second at some point.  If he isn’t, the team may move him back to third when Alvarez makes his transition.  Last season Walker put up a .296/.349/.462 line with 13 home runs in limited time.  If he can figure out a way to stay at second, his offensive ability plays like an All-Star at that position.

The Pirates signed former Blue Jay Lyle Overbay to play first base this year and although he’s not a good enough hitter for the position, he’s still a consistent on-base man who plays exemplary defence.  Alvarez and Walker will certainly benefit from having him on the throwing end of their plays.  Excluding last year, Overbay has been a consistent 2.0-2.5 WAR player throughout his career.

At shortstop, the Pirates will likely go with Ronny Cedeno who’s ultimately a replacement-level player, but they few other options.  If Cedeno is truly awful, Pedro Ciriaco could step in, but he’s ultimately no better.  Travis’ brother Chase D’Arnaud is also a shortstop, but after tearing through his first few pro years, he hit a wall at AA last year and is likely to go back there making his impact on the team in the short-term doubtful.

Josh Rodriguez was a Rule 5 pick from the Indians and has a real chance at making the team.  He can play all over the infield and could also end up the everyday shortstop if Cedeno struggles.

The team also has bust-prospect infielder Andy Marte in camp on a minor-league deal
Outfielders
Andrew McCutchen is a future superstar in centerfield.  He’s very overrated defensively where most metrics have him as a liability, but if the team ever moves him to a corner, he could be at least average.  Offensively, McCutchen is a force.  In his first full year, he hit for a decent average, showed great patience at the plate posting a 10.7 BB%, doesn’t strike out often and has some pop hitting 16 home runs and posting a .166 isolated power rating.  McCutchen also has the ability to steal a lot of bases with 33 last year, if you’re into that kind of thing.

In left, the Pirates have another young cornerstone in Jose Tabata.  Tabata came up last year and posted a 2.0 WAR in only 102 games, most of which came before his 22nd birthday.  His slash line of .299/.346/.400 was impressive as was his 2.9 UZR in leftfield.

In right, the Pirates have late-bloomer Garrett Jones, whose defensive numbers would suggest he’d do better in either leftfield of at first base.  After tearing up the league in a half season in 2009, Jones predictably came back down to earth in 2010 with a .247/.306/.414 slash line and was essentially a replacement-level player in terms of WAR.  Jones would make a decent fourth outfielder/first baseman on some good teams, but relying on him in the middle of the lineup is a mistake.

Matt Diaz was brought over via free agency from the Braves and is an excellent platoon option in the outfield.  Diaz is a well-below-average hitter against righties, but against lefties, Diaz has a career .334/.373/.533 slash line against lefties making him a no-brainer insert into the lineup when a southpaw takes the hill.  The left-handed-hitting Jones is the obvious benched player on those days.

John Bowker, Steve Pearce (who can also play first) and youngsters Alex Presley and Gorkys Hernandez will fight over the fifth outfielder spot with Bowker and Pearce having the edge given that they’re both better suited as bench players with less ceiling.

YAAAAARRR, roster breakdown.
Overview
The Pirates look to be well on their way to a 19th straight losing season, but for the first time in years, there’s hope.  The young core of Alvarez, McCutchen, Walker, and Tabata should continue to improve and start to bring this team back to respectability, but until high-ceiling pitching talent like Taillon, Allie, Luis Heredia, and Bryan Morris arrive, the Pirates will continue to wade out of contention.  Unfortunately for the franchise, the hitting talent and the pitching talent in the system have a two or three year gap so 2013 or 2014 will be the earliest this team will approach the .500-mark providing they manage to keep their core of young hitters together.
Final Prediction: 65-97, 5th NL Central

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