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
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.