Team Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

For the Pirates, 2010 was the worst of times. The team’s struggles are well documented. They haven’t finished above .500 since 1992, a year they went to a seventh game in the NLCS. The closest they came to respectability during that span was in 1997, when they finished 79-83, second in the NL Central. The furthest they came was in 2010, when they won just 57 games and finished their fourth straight season in the NL Central cellar.

There is room for hope, though. The team has a number of promising young players already in the majors, and another crop that could help in the years to come. The rebuilding process might take a few more years, but it is certainly under way.

The Starting Eight

1. LF Jose Tabata
2. 2B Neil Walker ^
3. CF Andrew McCutchen
4. 3B Pedro Alvarez *
5. 1B Lyle Overbay *
6. RF Garrett Jones * / Matt Diaz
7. C Chris Snyder
8. SS Ronny Cedeno
* left-handed, ^ switch hitter

Pirates position players produced just 2.8 WAR last season. This isn’t to say that they were the worst hitters. Their team 82 wRC+ ranked ahead of both the Astros and the Mariners. That figures to improve this year, because the team will get full seasons out of the players it called up mid-season: Walker, Tabata, and Alvarez most notably. Those three combined for just under 1,300 PA in 2010, but could be in line for 1,800 or more if they stay healthy. That will certainly provide improvement over Andy LaRoche, Akinori Iwamura, and Lastings Milledge, the 2010 Opening Day starters at those positions.

Acquiring Overbay should prove to be another offensive improvement. Pirates first basemen produced a .306 wOBA last season, 25th in the majors. Overbay himself produced a .332 wOBA,and had been better than that in the two previous seasons. Moving out of the AL East might prove to be an offensive boost for him, too. Even if he is stuck at that .332 mark, it’s still an improvement over Garrett Jones, who spent most of the year at first. Jones himself will move a hundred or so feet backwards into right field, a spot where the Pirates produced a .301 wOBA last season, while Jones was at .314. Even if he maintains that level, he’ll represent something of an improvement.


Late add: Diaz figures to platoon with Jones in right field, which will help the outlook there. Jones got 214 PA against lefties last year and fared rather poorly, while he has a career .365 wOBA against righties. Even in a down year in 2010 Diaz hit lefties well, and owns a career .387 wOBA against them. Platooned in right, they could make an impact that extends far beyond what Pittsburgh got from the position in 2010.

Thanks to commenter gonfalon for pointing this oversight.


The only two constants from last season are McCutchen and Cedeno. With McCutchen the Pirates have one of the league’s premier center fielders. His .363 wOBA ranked fourth among peers, but that includes Josh Hamilton and Carlos Gonzalez, two players who didn’t spend as much time in center as did McCutchen. There is a real case to be made that he is the league’s best at the position. Cedeno is an adequate stopgap at short, but little more. He wasn’t the worst-hitting shortstop last year, though he’s probably going to be in the conversation every year. This appears to be Pittsburgh’s weakest position, making it a disappointment that they didn’t improve there during the off-season.

While the Pirates have almost certainly improved, perhaps significantly so, on offense, it’s the defense that needs to take a step forward. UZR had them pegged as the worst defensive team by a decent margin, while TZL had them as worst by more than 30 runs. DRS had them at -81 runs, topped only by the Royals. The only returning players with positive UZRs are Tabata and Walker, and Walker was at 0.1. The Pirates are going to have to see major defensive improvements, especially from McCutchen, whose -14.4 UZR placed him among the worst center fielders in the league.

Still, this might be a metric and park issue. It also might be a John Russell issue. The former Pirates manager apparently positioned his fielders in a peculiar manner, something dubbed no-triples defense. Matt Bandi of Pittsburgh Lumber Co. (now Pirates Prospects) provided an in-depth look at how the Pirates outfielders positioned themselves. Might this have led to wonky UZR figures? If it did, and if new manager Clint Hurdle doesn’t employ a similar alignment, we could see a natural correction. This would make sense, considering the glowing scouting reports on McCutchen’s defense.

The Pitching Staff

LHP Paul Maholm
RHP James McDonald
RHP Kevin Correia
RHP Ross Ohlendorf
LHP Scott Olsen

CL RHP Joel Hanrahan
RHP Evan Meek
LHP Joe Beimel
RHP Chris Resop
RHP Jeff Karstens
RHP Kevin Hart
RHP Charlie Morton

As with the 2010 offense, the Pirates’ 2010 pitching staff ranked worst in the league in terms of WAR. The staff also produces the highest ERA in the league at 5.00. They made some changes this past off-season, but many of their pitchers will return in 2011. That makes it difficult to become optimistic about their chances.

Starting from the bottom, the Pirates have a fifth starter competition in spring training between Morton and Olsen. Since Olsen signed a guaranteed contract this winter and throws with his left hand, he might appear to have a leg up. He did miss time at the beginning of camp with a hamstring issue, though, so he might be a bit behind Morton at this point. Olsen recently spoke out regarding his chances of starting the season in the bullpen. In short, he wouldn’t be happy with it, no doubt because of $3 million in performance bonuses based on games started. Morton, however, is out of options and so will probably start in the pen if not the rotation.

Maholm finds himself in a peculiar position. He’s the longest tenured member of the Pirates staff, yet he’s coming off perhaps his worst season in the majors. A high BABIP and, maybe, poor defense caused his ERA to spike well above his FIP last season, but that’s just something pitchers like Maholm face every season. But at 29 he is in his prime, and figures to see his numbers bounce back to some degree. The problem is that the Pirates hold a $9.75 million option on his services in 2012. Chances are the Pirates won’t be in a contenting position by then, meaning they have little use for a soft-tossing, pitch-to-contact guy making nearly $10 million. If Maholm does indeed bounce back, we could see him in a different uniform by the end of July.

Ohendorf, on the other hand, would probably welcome a repeat of his 2010, minus the injuries. He walked a few too many batters, but still slipped away with a 4.07 ERA, which outpaced his 4.44 FIP and 4.96 xFIP. Unless he gets his groundball rate back above 40 percent, he could certainly see a greater number of fly balls leave the park. In fact, if Olsen pitches well enough I can see Morton taking over for Ohlendorf at some point in the season. He appears to be a serviceable pitcher, but his results have outpaced his peripherals in the last two seasons. If that reverses, he could find himself without a job.

Correia, signed as a free agent, comes as something of a gamble. His walk and home rates jumped in 2010, causing a spike in both ERA and FIP. Still, he’s a decent ground ball guy who can provide the Pirates with innings while they figure out which of their young pitchers are ticketed for the rotation. Still, outside of 2009 his best work has come from the bullpen. Depending on how the pitching situation works out, he might find himself there by year’s end.

The Guys Who Matter

The performances of two players will largely influence Pittsburgh’s position this year. On offense and in the field that will be Pedro Alvarez. On the mound it is James McDonald. If both of these guys work out to their potentials, the Pirates could be set up for the next few years as they bring up more and more prospects and continue their stages of rebuilding.

Alvarez could very well be the Prince Fielder to Andrew McCutchen’s Ryan Braun. As a lefty-righty three-four combination the have the potential to rank among the league’s elite. While Alvarez’s debut went fairly well, he still has some work before he is that middle-of-the-order bat that Pittsburgh needs him to become. His strikeout rate will have to come down some, at least where it was in the minors and probably even a bit lower. He’ll also need to get his ISO up to the .250 level it was in the minors. That becomes even more important if he can’t shed the contact issues that have kept his batting average low, and more important still if he requires a move to first base.

Thankfully for the Pirates, it’s not important that Alvarez do this all at once. Again, they don’t figure to contend in the next two seasons, which gives him time to work on his deficiencies. A few steps forward this year could go a long way to him being the heaviest bat on the first Pittsburgh team to finish over .500. Rapid ascension could perhaps keep that streak limited to 20 years (which it will hit if they finish below. 500 this season).

On the mound, McDonald is potentially the best pitcher the Pirates have, and will have for the next few seasons. He made an immediate impression upon arriving in Pittsburgh, throwing 64 dazzling innings during which he showed better control than he had previously in his career. Despite his struggles in LA, he’s not too far removed from being the Dodgers’ No. 2 prospect (2009, when No. 1 was Andrew Lambo, another player whom the Pirates acquired in the Octavio Dotel trade). If the change of scenery really did make the difference, he can be the No. 2 pitching in the No. 1 slot — hopefully until top prospect Jameson Taillon climbs the ranks.

If McDonald reverts to the pitcher he was with the Dodgers, the Pirates could be in a bit more trouble. That leaves them with a No. 3, at best, in the No. 1 spot, and it gets worse from there. It might open up opportunities for guys such as Jeff Locke and Rudy Owens, but they’ll probably get shots later in the year regardless of how McDonald pitches. A solid season from him will go a long way in returning the Pirates to a winning record.

If you’re a betting man, you already know to keep your money away from the Pirates. They stand little chance of making an impact in the NL Central race, save for the role of spoilers, in 2011. But they have a number of interesting players on the Opening Day roster, players who might help the team in the years to come. They’re almost certain to improve from their worst record in decades, and it will be on the backs of players who will play a central role in the next respectable Pirates team. That could make their season fun to watch, despite the near certainty that they’ll lose more games than they win.



Print This Post



Joe also writes about the Yankees at River Ave. Blues.


Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
ofMontreal
Guest
ofMontreal
5 years 3 months ago

Doumit is still around. Don’t you think he’ll be getting some AB’s at first and right?

Jim
Guest
Jim
5 years 3 months ago

Most certainly, but it will be coming off the bench. He’s no longer a viable starting catcher, but he could catch some games, and he’ll be the 4th or 5th OF depending on how they use Matt Diaz.

(And I think it would’ve been good for Joe–or whoever was assigned to/volunteered to write this preview–to put more of this into the preview. I think it’s mostly fine, but it kind of skips over the fact that the Pirates will likely have several battles for playing time, with Diaz seeing time at 1B and in the OF and Doumit seeing time at C, 1B, and OF. And then there’s Steven Pearce, former top prospect who could also see time at–you guessed it–1B and OF, but only if there’s an injury, most likely.)

gonfalon
Guest
gonfalon
5 years 3 months ago

Matt Diaz is also slated to platoon with Garrett Jones in RF… and Kevin Hart will likely open up the year on the DL.

No offense Joe, but it doesn’t look like this preview was researched very well.

epoc
Member
epoc
5 years 3 months ago

Neil Walker had a (very) negative UZR last year. His +0.1 was just his six games at 3B. In 105 games at 2B, the position he’ll play in 2011, he posted a -10.8.

Kirsh
Member
Kirsh
5 years 3 months ago

Walker’s walk rate is going to be critical. He’s in the second tier of offensive second baseman if he gets that up to a sufficient level. If not, he’s extremely average, and his defense will kill his value.

Tabata is similar, though he has plus-plus defense in the corner outfield to compensate to some extent if his OBP is low.

gdc
Guest
gdc
5 years 3 months ago

Didn’t McLouth blame his low UZR’s on playing aggressively shallow? Taking away the XBH’s seems to be the opposite tactic in the McCutcheon era.

mhad
Guest
mhad
5 years 3 months ago

In one paragraph you say McCutchen is the league’s best centerfielder, and in another you say his UZR ranks him among the worst? Are we to infer that the former statement was simply about offensive value, or that his UZR may have been anomalous? He certainly doesn’t have the (lack of) athleticism of a league worst outfielder.

Salt-n-Pepitone Loc
Guest
Salt-n-Pepitone Loc
5 years 3 months ago

Keep reading.

MarkInDallas
Guest
MarkInDallas
5 years 3 months ago

I’m hopeful that the Pirates will make even more use of platoons than just in right field.

Doumit was really exposed defensively last year as an everyday catcher. However, when he got a chance to rest a lot, he actually was not bad last year after Snyder arrived. I would like to see Doumit get at least half of the starts against RHPs. Doumit really does not need to be playing in RF or 1B, where he is scary terrible.

Overbay also could fall into a platoon with Pearce. Pearce has an excellent lifetime wOBA against LHPs, which could combine with Overbay to give the Pirates pretty good production at 1B.

Not every player thrives within a platoon, but using platoons for all 3 positions could make the Pirates’ offense a lot more respectable in 2011. It would leave SS as the only below average production in the Pirates’ lineup.

Pat
Guest
Pat
5 years 3 months ago

I still don’t understand why McCutchen’s UZR was so terrible. I do agree that part of it could be the defensive alignment, and Russell had this weird setup where he and Milledge would essentially be two center fielders and no one would cover left. I don’t really know enough to determine whether McCutchen showed bad range or just lined up in unfavorable spots, but watching him play he certainly looks like a good fielder.

I thought it was weird that you said Ohlendorf could be someone to leave the rotation because he’s outperforming his peripherals. I’ve watched every one of his starts, and even if he does get lucky with some fly balls, he’s the only guy on the team who knows how to pitch effectively. He nibbles at the zone too much which keeps some innings alive with walks, but his slider/slurve is a brutal out pitch, something that Maholm or Duke never had. Once he can start lasting longer in games, he can be our best pitcher, maybe second best to McDonald. I’m thinking Maholm will be traded at the deadline and Rudy Owens will assume a full time rotation spot.

Vote4Pedro
Guest
Vote4Pedro
5 years 3 months ago

Wow thanks for not making that too depressing. Looking forward to watching McDonald this year, he’s the only pitcher that misses bats.

For McCutchen’s UZR, the statistic is flawed obviously. If I understand UZR correctly (probably not), the left fielders shading into left center takes some of Cutch’s plays away from those zones. LC is big at PNC so that was probably where some of his value came from in 2009. Also, a ball that Cutch gets to but makes an error on can hurt his value relative to other CFs who let the ball hit the fence and throw it in. UZR doesn’t factor in Cutch’s arm or hitting either, so calling him the best CF and citing a negative UZR isn’t necessarily contradictory.

Will the Pirates ever have players who get on base? Even if Alvarez develops into a Prince Fielder-like hitter, there won’t be anyone on base for him. Pirates management has said they will supplement a competitive team with veteran pieces, and you have to assume this means a veteran bat (a la Orioles this year) and starting pitching… But a core of 4 young hitters — two of which can’t get on base AND don’t hit for power — and possibly no 1st, 2nd or 3rd starters in this rotation is disturbing. I don’t think there is a competitive team ready to be supplemented in the near future… or distant future.

Start counting down ’til Taillon’s inevitable TJ…

MarkInDallas
Guest
MarkInDallas
5 years 3 months ago

I’m not sure who you are referring to that can’t get on base. Tabata had a .346 OBP and Walker had a .349 OBP in their first year of MLB ball. Alvarez had the lowest OBP of the four (Alvarez had a .326 OBP and McCutchen’s .365 OBP). I would guess that Tabata and Walker will both improve their walk ratios further in 2011 with experience and if Alvarez can improve his K rate, his OBP will also go up.

cmarco
Guest
cmarco
5 years 3 months ago

Just a note on McCutchen’s arm. His strength may be average and his accuracy at best would be average. He shows a terrible frequency of rainbowing his throws and consistently overthrows the cutoff man.

Doug
Guest
Doug
5 years 3 months ago

Won’t it only be 19 losing seasons if they lose more games than they win this year?

John Lease
Guest
John Lease
4 years 4 months ago

This was wrong on a lot of levels. Doumit ended up being the starter. Alvarez blew. But they were better, because it’s hard to lose over 100 games consistently.

wpDiscuz