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Can the young Pirate talent put it all together in 2011?
The Pirates are perpetually rebuilding, and that is the case again this season. In fact, a sign of success in 2011 would be merely escaping laughingstock status. The Pirates seemingly hit bottom last season when they went 57–105 for their 18th consecutive losing season, adding to their major North American professional sports record. The 105 losses were the most for the Pirates since the 1952 team went 42–112. Considering it would take 16 more wins just to avoid a 90-loss season, contention is surely out of the question. However, the Pirates do feel they will begin to take steps forward with a young nucleus that includes second baseman Neil Walker, third baseman Pedro Alvarez, left fielder Jose Tabata and center fielder Andrew McCutchen. They also believe hard-throwing Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek give them the foundation to build a potentially strong bullpen. Clint Hurdle will be the latest manager to try to get the Pirates turned around. The Texas hitting coach and former Colorado skipper slowly guided the Rockies from the NL West cellar to the franchise’s lone World Series appearance in 2007, and the Pirates are hoping he can repeat that success in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates lack not only an ace but also a true No. 2 or No. 3 starter, though they hope a midseason addition and two offseason acquisitions can bolster this area. Righthander James McDonald was particularly impressive after being acquired from the Dodgers at the July 31 trade deadline last season as he flashed dominating stuff with a 95-mph fastball and hammer curveball. Of all the pitchers on the roster, he has the best chance of taking a big step up this season. Righthander Ross Ohlendorf had an injury-marred 2010 and was the victim of a lack of offensive support as he went 1–11. If he’s healthy, the Pirates believe he can repeat the success he had during the second half of 2009. Lefthander Paul Maholm is an ace in name only as he is coming off the worst season of his career. He would be a No. 4 starter at best on a good team. The Pirates signed righthander Kevin Correia and lefty Scott Olsen as free agents last winter, hoping they can at least eat some innings and keep Hurdle from having to blow out his bullpen. Jeff Karstens will be back to serve in his role as a utility pitcher, able to step into the rotation should the need arise. Righthanders Charlie Morton and Brad Lincoln have good stuff, but both struggled last season at the major league level. Any of the prospects in the Indianapolis rotation could make their major league debuts during the second half of the season, including Bryan Morris and lefties Rudy Owens, Jeff Locke and Justin Wilson.
Hanrahan finished last season as the primary closer after Octavio Dotel was traded to the Dodgers at the deadline. Both Hanrahan and Meek will be considered for the role in spring training with the other serving as the primary setup man. Both have similar stuff with 95-mph fastballs and biting sliders. Hanrahan has the edge because of experience, but Meek was the Pirates’ lone All-Star last season. The Pirates will look at a cast of thousands in spring training to see who fills the other five relief roles, though Chris Resop will be the favorite to be the seventh-inning man as he impressed after being claimed off waivers from Atlanta last August. Righthander Daniel McCutchen is the favorite to be the long reliever as he pitched well in that role at times last season after flopping as a starter. Lefty Daniel Moskos, the first-round draft pick in 2007, is worth watching. He turned his career around with 21 saves for Double-A Altoona.
Walker will look to build off a fine rookie season in which he was the Pirates’ biggest surprise. A first-round draft pick in 2004, he began the conversion to super utility player last year during spring training after spending the previous two seasons as the Triple-A third baseman and being passed on the depth chart by Alvarez. The Pirates gave Walker a chance to play second on Memorial Day to replace struggling Aki Iwamura, and he put a hammerlock on the job. Erratic Ronny Cedeno returns as the shortstop, but this is his make-or-break year. The Pirates love Cedeno’s raw ability as he has power and outstanding arm strength, but he undermines his talent with inconsistency. Pedro Ciriaco will be waiting at Triple-A if Cedeno falters.
Alvarez struggled after being called up in June, but he came on strong in September and appears ready to be a major force in the middle of the lineup with his outstanding power potential. Alvarez fared particularly well at PNC Park, where the short right field porch fits his left-handed stroke. He is not a good defensive third baseman, though, lacking range and first-step quickness. First baseman Lyle Overbay was signed as a free agent, and the Pirates hope he will add a veteran presence to the heart of the batting order while hitting plenty of doubles into PNC Park’s spacious power alleys. He is also an above-average defensive first baseman with excellent hands and should upgrade a leaky infield.
McCutchen was knocked in some circles for not building on his fine rookie season of 2009 last year, but he still showed he is the centerpiece of the Pirates’ rebuilding program. He is a multi-talented player with a great aptitude for the game and is likely to grow into the leader of this young team. Tabata made his major league debut last June and had a fine rookie season. He has the ability to get on base, is a high-percentage basestealer and shows enough glimpses of power to make the Pirates believe that could become a big part of his game as he gains experience. Garrett Jones will be a platoon right fielder this season, playing against righthanders, despite leading the team in home runs in each of the last two seasons. His struggles against lefties last season prompted the Pirates to sign Matt Diaz as a free agent. Diaz has a track record of mashing southpaws.
Chris Snyder took over for Ryan Doumit as the starter behind the plate after being acquired from Arizona at the trading deadline last season. Snyder came to the Pirates with the reputation of being a good defensive catcher with some power but showed neither in the final two months. Nevertheless, he will be the No. 1 catcher.
The switch-hitting Doumit will be the backup catcher and figures to be deployed frequently as a pinch-hitter, especially from the left side. He can provide some power off the bench, as can either Jones or Diaz and John Bowker, a left-handed hitting outfielder/first baseman who figures to make the team because he is out of minor league options. Josh Rodriguez, selected from Cleveland with the first pick in the Rule 5 draft, could conceivably push Cedeno for the starting shortstop job but will likely serve as the utility infielder. Former Rockies stalwart Garrett Atkins will try to resurrect his career as a backup corner infielder.
Hurdle is in the first year of a three-year contract and brings plenty of personality and enthusiasm, an absolute necessity in this situation. General manager Neal Huntington has been forced to build the organization from the ground up since being hired late in the 2007 season. Though Huntington has generally done good work, he is in the last season of his contract, a sure sign that ownership wants to start seeing some results at the major league level this season.
The Pirates have much more talent in their organization than when Huntington took over three-plus years ago thanks to three strong drafts. While the team should be better this season, any kind of real turnaround won’t begin to take place until 2012 at the earliest.