After a tease with success last year, Pirates believe they can compete
The Pittsburgh Pirates want to stretch four months of feel-good baseball into six months this season. The Pirates reached the 100-game mark last season with a 53–47 record and tied for first place in the National League Central. Not only were the Pirates in position to break their streak of 18 consecutive losing seasons, most in North American professional sports history, but they also had a chance to become one of the best baseball stories of recent times if they could somehow win the division. Alas, the bottom fell out. The Pirates lost 43 of their final 62 games to finish with 90 losses. The Pirates, though, believe they can go the distance this season. They believe their younger players are now better prepared to physically and emotionally handle a long season. They also believe that signing lefthander Erik Bedard, catcher Rod Barajas and shortstop Clint Barmes as free agents will improve their club on the field and provide more of a veteran presence in the clubhouse. Time will tell, though. After all, despite the unlikely success in the first two-thirds of last season, the Pirates finished 14th in the NL in runs scored and 11th in runs allowed. And they are still the Pirates.
The Pirates don’t have anybody resembling a No. 1 starter, so the job will likely fall to Bedard by default after he signed a one-year, $4.5-million contract. The oft-injured Bedard logged over 100 innings last season for the first time in four years as he went a 5–9 with a 3.62 ERA in 24 starts with Seattle and Boston. A.J. Burnett was acquired from the Yankees and most everyone in baseball believes that a change of scenery and escape from New York will benefit the enigmatic righthander. He didn’t exactly get off to a great start with the Pirates. He fouled a pitch off his face during a bunting drill and broke an orbital bone, which will cost him several weeks. Charlie Morton has the best raw stuff on the staff and showed signs of turning the corner last season when he went 10–10 with a 3.83 ERA in 29 starts. However, he underwent hip surgery in October and will miss the first month of the season. James McDonald also has above-average stuff but has yet to harness it. If he can somehow learn to control his 95-mph and curveball, he could zoom to the top of the rotation. Kevin Correia won 12 games last season after signing as a free agent and was selected to his first All-Star Game. However, he won once after the All-Star break and missed the last six weeks of the season with a strained oblique. Correia is more innings eater than ace. Jeff Karstens doesn’t wow the scouts or light up their radar guns. Yet he usually finds a way to keep the team in the game because of his pitching acumen and command. Either Brad Lincoln or rookie lefthander Jeff Locke will likely begin the season in the rotation if Morton has to go on the disabled list.
Joel Hanrahan was one of the best closers in the game last season as he converted 40 saves in 44 opportunities, posted a 1.83 ERA and pitched in the ninth inning of the National League’s victory in the All-Star Game. Hanrahan is seemingly poised for another big season, but one concern is that his strikeout rate dipped to 8.0 per nine innings last season from 12.9 in 2010. Evan Meek represented the Pirates in the 2010 All-Star Game when he had a 2.14 ERA in 70 games. Now he looks to rebound after being limited to 20.2 innings last season because of shoulder problems. If he’s healthy, figure on Meek setting up Hanrahan along with Jason Grilli. The Pirates signed Grilli off Philadelphia’s Triple-A farm club in July and he had a 2.48 ERA in 28 games. It was quite a comeback considering his career seemed to be over after he ruptured his quadriceps in 2010 during a spring training drill. Chris Resop has been solid in middle relief since being claimed off waivers from Atlanta during the 2010 season.
The Pirates are counting on Barmes, signed to a two-year, $10.5-million contract, to provide the stability at shortstop that Ronny Cedeno never did during the previous two seasons. Barmes’ power has run hot and cold throughout his career; he hit .244 with 12 home runs in 123 games for Houston last season. Many of the advanced statistical metrics ranked Barmes among the best defensive shortstops in the game. Second baseman Neil Walker had a .273 batting average and 12 homers in his first full major league season in 2011. The switch-hitting Pittsburgh native believes he is capable of doing more if he can gain consistency, and the Pirates are happy with the converted catcher’s defensive progression.
The Pirates tried to woo Derrek Lee into returning as a free agent after acquiring the 36-year-old from Baltimore at last year’s trading deadline. However, at this advanced stage of his career, Lee would rather play on a team more likely to contend. The Pirates could opt for a platoon of left-handed-hitting Garrett Jones and right-handed Casey McGehee, acquired from Milwaukee in an offseason trade, at first base. Both had disappointing 2011 seasons as Jones hit .243 with 16 home runs and McGehee batted .223 with 13 homers. McGehee is the Pirates’ backup plan at third base if Pedro Alvarez has another poor start. Alvarez crashed and burned in 2011 after a promising rookie season, hitting .191 with four homers in 74 games. Pint-sized Josh Harrison is another possibility at third base. He made his major league debut last year and had a .272 batting average in 65 games.
Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen has established himself as the face of the franchise, and the Pirates are confident that rightfielder Jose Tabata and leftfielder Alex Presley can join him as long-term fixtures in the lineup. The multi-talented McCutchen is one of the most dynamic young players in the game at 25 and played in his first All-Star Game last season. His 2011 could have been a great year, but he hit just .216 after the All-Star break to finish at .259 with 23 homers, 89 RBIs and 23 stolen bases. Tabata has yet to stay healthy in his two major league seasons. However, the Pirates believe so much in his ability to blossom into a power hitter that they signed him to a six-year, $15-million contract extension last August that could stretch through 2019 if three club options are exercised. Presley acquitted himself well last season in his first extended major-league action, hitting .298 in 52 games.
Barajas was signed to a one-year, $3.5-million contract as a free agent because he still has some pop at 36 — 16 home runs in 98 games for the Dodgers last season — and an ability to handle young pitching. Michael McKenry, a solid defender, will likely be the backup catcher.
McGehee and Harrison figure into the plan as potential backups if they don’t unseat Alvarez at third base. The Pirates are hoping Nate McLouth can regain some magic by returning to Pittsburgh after signing him as a free agent during the winter meetings to be the fourth outfielder. He won a Gold Glove and played in the All-Star Game in 2008 before the Pirates traded to him to Atlanta the next season. His career has gone into a nosedive. Versatile Yamaico Navarro, acquired from Kansas City in a winter trade, intrigues the Pirates with his bat, but his defense is shaky in the middle infield.
General manager Neal Huntington had to wait until last September before learning he would be returning this season on a three-year contract. Huntington has shown a knack for acquiring pitching gems, but most of the hitters he has signed as free agents have been busts. Clint Hurdle was a breath of fresh air last year in his first season as manager. He brought plenty of energy, and his positive nature rubbed off on his players, who no longer feel it is the Pirates’ birthright to be doormats.
There is no denying that the Pirates are moving in the right direction, as their major league roster and farm system are much more talented than when Huntington took over in 2007. Hurdle also seems to be the man to take the franchise places. However, it would be premature to think the Pirates can contend this season. They still have too many holes and not enough depth. Yet if things break right, the first winning season since 1992 is a possibility.
RF Jose Tabata (R)
He has the speed and basestealing ability to bat leadoff, but health always seems to be an issue.
LF Alex Presley (L)
He could flip-flop with Tabata in the batting order because of his ability to get on base and steal bases.
CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
He is already an accomplished player at 25, and this could be the year he becomes a superstar.
2B Neil Walker (S)
Pitchers adjusted to him last season following a solid rookie year, and now it’s his turn to adjust back.
1B Garrett Jones (L)
He is an effective hitter with pop and patience when kept away from left-handed pitchers.
3B Pedro Alvarez (L)
The big-time power potential is there, and it’s time for him to start unlocking it or risk being labeled a bust.
SS Clint Barmes (R)
The Pirates signed him primarily because he can catch the ball and he isn’t Ronny Cedeno.
C Rod Barajas (R)
The free agent signee provides thump at the bottom of the lineup and stability behind the plate.
C Michael McKenry (R)
Defensive specialist is well-liked by the Pirates’ pitchers; hit .222 in 58 games in the bigs last season.
INF Casey McGehee (R)
Pirates are hoping a change of scenery helps after his disastrous 2011 with Milwaukee.
INF Josh Harrison (R)
His defense is suspect and he can only be used at shortstop in an emergency, but he can swing the bat.
UT Yamaico Navarro (R)
He can play all over the infield and outfield and even occasionally pop a ball out of the park.
OF Nate McLouth (L)
Returns to Pirates with expectations much lower than his All-Star season of 2008.
LH Erik Bedard
Signed as a free agent to add stability to rotation, but he is always an injury waiting to happen.
RH Jeff Karstens
A rare soft-tossing righthander, he survives with pinpoint control.
RH James McDonald
He has the stuff to win a lot of games but needs to throw more strikes.
RH Kevin Correia
A solid pitcher for the back end of the rotation but is stretched in a larger role.
RH A.J. Burnett
Only pitcher in majors with at least 190 innings and an ERA over 5.10 last season. Will miss a few months after fouling a ball off his face in a bunting drill.
RH Charlie Morton
Roy Halladay copycat (sans the results) will miss the first month of the season (hip surgery rehab).
RH Joel Hanrahan (Closer)
He made the transition from dominant setup man to elite closer last season.
RH Evan Meek
Following a breakthrough 2010, Meek had a frustrating and injury-marred 2011.
RH Jason Grilli
Signed off the scrap heap last July, he figures to be a key component of this relief corps.
RH Chris Resop
Unsung hero of this bullpen as he provides consistently good work in the middle innings.
LH Tony Watson
Has the stuff to get major league hitters out but walks are a major concern.
RH Chris Leroux
Has allowed just one home run in 54.1 major league innings.
RH Juan Cruz
Allowed just six of 30 inherited runners to score last season in 56 games with Tampa Bay.