Read the methodology behind the ratings here. Remember that the grading scale is 20-80, with 50 representing league average.
2012 Organizational Rankings
Pittsburgh’s 2011 Ranking: 28th
2012 Outlook — 37 (25th)
How can a 72-win season possibly represent progress? It helps for the franchise in question to be coming off a coming off a 57-win debacle the season before. And it helps for the franchise in question to be coming off four straight last-place finishes. And it helps for the franchise in question to entering its 19th consecutive season without a playoff appearance.
But there was something undeniably striking about what happened in Pittsburgh in the first half of the 2011 season. The Pirates actually contended through May, and then June. And then then they actually held the division lead for two days in July. It was the first season since 2002 in which the Pirates held a division lead after April 10th. It was kind of a big deal, mostly because the city of Pittsburgh took note. People — large groups of them, even — started to care about Pirates baseball again, and that can be the most important step on a fallen franchise’s trail back to relevance.
Still, the trail the Pirates face is a long one. The clear franchise-quality player is on hand in Andrew McCutchen, and the Pirates have two solid young position players establishing themselves in Neil Walker and Jose Tabata. Joel Hanrahan was a deserving All-Star last season from the closer position. After that, however, it gets dicey.
This season will be key for Pedro Alvarez, who needs to figure out his position and his bat this year. Last season’s brutal .191/.272/.289 showing was among the league’s biggest disappointments. There is still very little to be excited about in the starting rotation — A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard will make things better than last year, but neither can call themselves an ace nor can they promise much in terms of innings. The rest of the rotation — Charlie Morton, James McDonald, Jeff Karstens and Kevin Correia — was a majority of the group which achieved just a 112 ERA- and an NL-worst 116 FIP-. The team will need some major steps forward from its younger players — like McDonald, Morton and Alex Presley — if they are to make a significant push beyond last year’s effort.
2013+ Outlook: 50 (T-15th)
With McCutchen locked into a six-year $51.5 million deal, the Pirates have a star player at a very reasonable price who can serve as the core for the next truly competitive team out of Pittsburgh. The question is where they find the next one or two similar players needed to crack through the top of the NL Central. Ideally, one or both of Jose Tabata (already signed through 2016 with club options through 2019) or Pedro Alvarez (under club control through 2014) can step up and assume that role.
The Pirates will need more. The most significant pieces to build around McCutchen and company will most likely come from the previous two drafts. The Pirates’ top four prospects — Gerrit Cole, Josh Bell, Jameson Taillon and Tony Sanchez — all come from the 2009-2011 drafts, and six of the overall top 10 come from the past two years of drafts. Cole and Sanchez in particular have the potential to make the quickest impacts and Cole can equal (and possibly surpass) McCutchen in terms of impact on the franchise. The Pirates will need to continue drafting well, but their top picks from each of the last two drafts have the potential to form the lasting core they’ll need if they want to become consistent contenders.
Financial Resources: 35 (28th)
The last time the Pirates were above a $50 million payroll was in 2003. Adjusting for inflation, the $54 million the Pirates spent in 2003 is worth just under $68 million today. Since then, the Pirates have gone through a vicious cycle, trotting out terrible teams in front of tiny crowds (at one of the best stadiums in the league, no less), bringing only the same small diehard group back on a yearly basis to watch another similarly awful team. The seemingly unbreakable circle of life for a bad baseball team.
The excellent first three-and-a-half months of the 2011 season brought the highest attendance totals PNC Park has seen since opening in 2001, as over 1.9 million fans pushed the turnstiles. Still, the Pirates ranked 15th in the National League in attendance, beating only the Marlins — the same Marlins who closed the upper deck of their park before the Pirates had even dropped out of the playoff race. Forbes ranks the Pirates as the 28th most valuable franchise. As such, although the Pirates can probably pick up spending should the scenario call for it, it’s difficult to imagine a scenario in which they break the bank anytime soon.
Baseball Operations: 46 (T-20th)
Neal Huntington has executed a pretty simple plan over the past few years: trade veterans for young players with loads of service time. Find talented players through this relatively cheap avenue of talent acquisition and hope they can be enough to supplement your early draft picks and put together a winning team. In the time leading up to the 2009 trade deadline, for example, Huntington turned players with 28 years of combined team control into a group with a whopping 95 years worth remaining.
The problem? Huntington just isn’t hitting on nearly enough of his darts. Let’s take a look at the list of players who comprise those 95 hypothetical years:
Charlie Morton, Jeff Locke, Gorkys Hernandez, Lastings Milledge, Joel Hanrahan, Eric Fryer, Casey Erickson, Argenis Diaz, Hunter Strickland, Jeff Clement, Ronny Cedeno, Nathan Adcock, Brett Lorin, Aaron Pribanic, Tim Alderson, Kevin Hart, Jose Ascanio, and Josh Harrison
And this is what they’ve done for the Pirates since:
Huntington has his finds. Hanrahan and Morton have been solid. Jose Tabata looks like a coup from the Yankees for Damaso Marte and Xavier Nady. James McDonald and Andrew Lambo for Octavio Dotel remains a feather in his cap despite McDonald’s down 2011 season. But until the process starts producing more major league regulars, it’s tough to give Huntington high ranks for turning mediocre players into mediocre players who make slightly less money.
Overall: 39 (27th)
To deny that the Pittsburgh Pirates are closer to a playoff berth now than they were even one year ago would be foolish. How far they still find themselves from the light at the end of the tunnel just goes to show the deep hole the last two decades of incompetence has put them in. There just isn’t enough elite or even above-average major league talent currently on hand for this team to make a true 162-game push towards the playoffs yet. Much of the talent that can help with that push is young and in the early stages of development. Finally, it remains to be seen whether the Pirates have the resources or the wherewithal to bring in the support characters from outside the organization that will be necessary once the prospects start to reach their potential.
Still, the Pirates are pushing forward. For all the questions about how quick that push is and whether it will ultimately be enough to break their playoff drought — very legitimate questions at that — Pittsburgh can at least take solace in a move in the proper direction.