Thursday, March 31, 2011

2011 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview


The Pirates will take the field for the 2011 season with a lot of questions and a lot to prove. Sure, this isn’t a team that is going to make a push for the playoffs or for a division title, but that is not what this season is about. Wins and losses are only going to tell you a small sliver about what the Pittsburgh Pirates are really about. You may ask yourself what else could we possibly look for outside of wins and losses in terms of success and failure? Well my friends that is what I am here to help you realize.
Through this brief preview I am going to take a look at what we should expect from this Pirates team and what to look for in this 162 game marathon.

What is success? For some it is getting to .500, for some it is making the playoffs, for some it is not losing 100 games. Everyone will give you a different variation of what they think success will be for the Pittsburgh Pirates this season, but the bottom line in those three instances I gave you was that this team will be better. I think the driving force in evaluating this season will be the progress of the major league core players and the players that are in the minor league system. The Pirates might only win 65 games, but seeing the transformation of players such as Tabata, Walker, Alvarez, Lincoln, Morton, McCutchen, will go a long way in telling us how the future of this team is going to be.

Before we get into the players there was a pretty big addition made to the Pirates in the offseason and that was the hiring of Clint Hurdle as the Pirates manager. While Russell was very much quiet and you never really know what you were going to get. Clint Hurdle is full of energy and with the young team that might help a lot. He has a lot of character and from what I have heard he really wanted this job and asked Neal Huntington a lot of questions about the organization to make sure he wanted this job. I like the energy and he is getting down to fundamentals, something the Pirates struggled mightily with last season. It seems as if he wants to be aggressive on the base paths (which will work because we have a pretty athletic team) and just wants to win and lets people know it. If he steals a base and takes it with him he will be the best manager ever.

Without further ado let’s take a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates we expect to see on the field in the 2011 season broken down in three parts: Infield, Outfield and Pitchers.

Hit the jump.



Infield

The central part of this infield core is far and away Pedro Alvarez (3B) and Neil Walker (2B). While Walker came up and really surprised a lot of people last season this is going to be all about Pedro this season, both offensively and defensively. Alvarez belted 16 homeruns and drove in 64 in only 95 games for the Pirates last season despite striking out 119 times and hitting only .256. It is not a surprise that Alvarez started out slow as that is the way he typically starts off every season, but it was nice to see Pedro really come into his own during the latter part of last season hitting .311 in September. No doubt Pedro has the potential to be a dynamic hitter and put a lot of balls into the gap and out of the ball park and it will be very interesting to see how he handles and progresses through a full major league baseball season. The kid is capable as told by this late inning blast to win a game against the Rockies:



Defensively Alvarez isn’t going to wow you, but he is very capable of playing the position. Pedro has an unreal arm that he displays on a daily basis and has shown flashes of great play at the position. I would really like to see Pedro grow a little bit more. From all things I have heard Pedro has come back in much better shape than he was last year, which will help his mobility. He does not move well side to side, which will kill you as a third baseman, but lets see how much progress he can make on the defensive side of the ball.

Neil Walker is a real wild card. After having average to below average years in the minor leagues through his career but just went crazy last year in AAA and forced the big club to make some room for him on the 25 man roster. He did not disappoint. Walker finished the season hitting almost .300 with 12 home runs and 66 RBI and was money at the plate. He was moved to second base for the first time in his career when he came up and it showed as he didn’t play particularly great defense, but with his athletic ability and another year I look for him to be a much better defensive player in ’11. Do I expect the same output offensively? No, not really. He hit .340 on balls in play, which is pretty high and suggests that his batting average will take a dip. As Pat said in the podcast a few days ago we also know that he does not walk too often (only 7.2% of the time) which will need to improve as his BABIP decreases. I would be happy with a .280 average this year.

The Bucs signed former Blue Jay first baseman Lyle Overbay in the offseason to solidify the first base circus that the Pirates had last season. Overbay is going to be a nice addition defensively which will help with the wildness you get from the left side of the infield. Overbay only had six errors last season and two the year before , so you can’t knock that. He will not be an offensive threat as he is 34 years old and hit .243 a year ago, but is a .270+ hitter over his career. He will bring some power and should drive in some runs hitting in the middle of the order so he is a much better fit at first base than a full time Garrett Jones or Ryan Doumit (gag).

Ronny Cedeno will be the shortstop pretty much by default. Last year he was not especially productive and typically could be found out to lunch on the defensive side of the ball. As a shortstop you can deal with lacking in one part of your game if you can pick it up in the other part of your game. As of right now I can’t see that with Cedeno. He is serviceable and will be hitting out of the seven or eight spot most likely so we are not looking for great production out of him, but I would like to see him focus up more on the defensive side of the ball, but I can’t really hold my breath for that.

Chris Snyder was brought to the team to play defense. No way was he going to be a great hitter by any stretch of the imagination, and hit career numbers tell us that (.229 career average). Somewhat like the shortstop position you can get by being a good defensive player in return for a subpar bat. Snyder wasn’t here for much of last season and actually struggled some defensively, but I really don’t see that happening. I think a big part of being a catcher is having a good report with their pitches and I don’t think Snyder has that yet since he was not with the team much. I think once he come off the DL and works with the pitchers every day we will see a real comfort and he should help the pitchers throw better.

The bench was a pretty interesting mix to start. With Snyder on the DL to start the season and the club’s decision to keep Josh Rodriguez that pretty much filled out the spots. Rodriguez was a rule-5 pickup from Cleveland and performed pretty well in spring training and has a solid track record with a solid minor league line (.293/.372/.486). He is not as solid in the field, but he will fill as a backup for the left side of the infield and at second base. Steve Pearce also made the team and will backup Overbay at first base and also took some balls at third base during spring training which will make him pretty versatile. Pearce still has an option left but I can imagine this is his last big shot to make an impact. Ryan Doumit is still on the team (yawn). No idea.



Outfield

The outfield is dripping with athletes and potential and we saw a good bit of that last year with Jose Tabata in left and Andrew McCutchen in center.

Some have pointed out McCutchen as the best centerfielder in the game after only being in the league a year and a half. That is right, a year and a half. Doesn’t it feel like he has been in the league like five year? Well, this is only his second full season with the team and he is only going to get better. Last season he split time between leadoff and third in the order and hit .286, the same as his rookie year and scored 94 runs and blasted 16 homeruns. The most impressive part about McCutchen is that he slashed his strikeout % by almost 4%. He will be starting the season in the three hole so it would not surprise me to see some more power numbers, but I don’t look for him to be bashing out 30 homeruns. I look for him to run more than last year, where he stole 33 stolen bases. He is a true five tool player and should be productive yet again.

Jose Tabata is my favorite Pittsburgh Pirate and the kid can play some baseball. He hit .299 in 441 plate appearances. Tabata is much like McCutchen in that he can run and hit for contact, although the power numbers are not there (.400 slugging). He did hit 21 doubles and four triples but he is much more of a contact hitter than a deep gap hitter. He will leadoff for the Pirates to start the season and that is not a bad thing, although much like Walker he will have to learn to walk a little bit more. Tabata only walked 6.3% of the time last season and that number will have to jump up a bit to be a more productive leadoff hitter. Tabata is also a speedster and if he sticks with the top of the lineup he could steal in upwards of 30-35 bases to really make the top of the lineup dangerous when they get on the bases. He also patrols left field at PNC Park which can look like a forest, and does it well. He can cover ground and does a great job of it.

Right field will be a platoon situation and to be quite honest the Pirates will be much better for it. Garrett Jones will play mostly against right handed pitching while Matt Diaz will platoon against left handed pitching. Jones burst on the scene in 2009 hitting 21 homeruns in only 2009 and really made it seem like the Pirates might have found a power threat in the rough. Last season Jones fell back to earth a bit and hit only 21 homeruns in a team-high 158 games played while hitting only .247 and a mere .220 against left handed pitching. Jones is not an everyday player but I think he can be more capable as a platoon against right handed pitching where he hit .262 in 424 plate appearances. He might play some first base if needed, but he is much better served playing right field.

Diaz has been even more successful in his career against lefties as Jones has been against righties. Diaz hits a career .334 against left handed pitching and will be a huge asset to have against the south paws and even bigger coming off the bench to face those pitchers later in games. While he might not be physically gifted in the field I don’t really think he could be any worse than Ryan Doumit in the outfield (who could) so this should be a nice addition for the Pirates and for Matt Diaz.

On the bench will be John Bowker after making the team out of camp, which was aided by Snyder being on the DL. He had a pretty nice spring and led the team in homeruns and drove the ball pretty well. While I do not put much stock into spring training numbers I still think it would be nice to see what Bowker has to offer the club and will be another left handed bat off the bench. He hit over .300 in AAA between the Pirates and Giants after struggling in 67 big league games. Why not give Bowker a chance and see what he can do? Why not, right? I wouldn’t say this is a make or break player decision.

Overall with the infield and outfield lineup this could be a very exciting team. This is how the lineup should look:

1. Jose Tabata
2. Neil Walker
3. Andrew McCutchen
4. Pedro Alvarez
5. Lyle Overbay
6. Garrett Jones/Matt Diaz
7. Chris Snyder
8. Ronny Cedeno
9. Pitcher

Let’s be honest, that really isn’t that bad of a lineup 1-5 or 6. The Pirates have quietly put together some players that can hit the baseball and hopefully drive in runs. Especially in the top of the order they have athletic guys that can run and create more runs so it should be really fun to watch. How many times in the past five or six years have the Pirates put a lineup out there and when the top of the order rolls around you think “boy, I hope they get a hit”? Probably more than one time. With the success of these guys in their first year you can really say that when guys like Tabata, Walker, McCutchen, etc . comes up you think “they are going to get a hit”. I mean at least I think that and for most people this is some of the best talent that the Pirates have put in an order in some time.



Pitching

There really was no big surprise in the pitching rotation this year as it will line up as Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, James McDonald, Charlie Morton and Kevin Correia. It is really no surprise that the Pirates will be as successful (record wise) as their pitching takes them. The offense has some talent and should be able to make up for some lapses, but the pitchers can’t afford that. Last season a bad start meant the team wasn’t going to win and it was going to get ugly.

One thing that most people will overlook when looking at both the starters and the relief guys is the change in pitching coach as Ray Searage takes over this season. One thing that was very telling is when the Pirates played the Twins in a spring training game and Matt Capps was getting interviewed during the game and the Twins announcers asked him what it was like to see a lot of old friends and teammates and Capps immediately began to gush over Searage and how he was the reason that he got the majors and how much he helped him refine his game. It seems as if a lot of the players love having him as a coach so please don’t discount his value to the staff as a whole.

Kevin Correia is the new kid to the pitching block after spending last season with San Diego where he went 10-10 with a 5.40 ERA and a 4.06 xFIP. Correia will start opening day in Wrigley Field and he should be a pretty nice fit in the rotation and he can’t be much worse than Zach Duke (you sure as hell hope not).

Paul Maholm will get the second start of the season and to be honest I don’t really expect a ton out of Paul in terms of shocking me one way or another. With him you pretty much get what you see, and that really isn’t a bad thing. It is nice to know what you get from your starter and last season he was a touch high on the ERA (5.10) but had a pretty decent xFIP (4.41) which was more in line with his career. It is pretty interesting to look at Paul’s numbers as they seem to go in three year stretches in terms of ERA. Here is a breakdown of his three year stretches:

2005: 2.18 ERA (41.1 IP)
2006: 4.74 (176)
2007: 5.02 (177.2)

And

2008: 3.71 (206.1)
2009: 4.44 (194.2)
2010: 5.10 (185.1)

So pretty much we can hope this will be a good season for Paul as he starts another three year stretch. (What is a stretch is me even brining this up, but I need something and this was interesting)

Ross Ohlendorf has had an up and down career with the Pirates. The up was the first year with Pittsburgh in 2009 when he went 11-10 with a 3.92 ERA and then last year he went 1-11 with a respectable 4.07 (with a higher xFIP of 4.75) and he was very injury prone. I feel that we will not see the same Ross we saw in 2009 (he pitched better than his numbers) and a better Ross than we saw last season (how could it get much worse). Like I said before, spring training numbers are not a good thing to go off of, but Ohlendorf has been terrible this spring. Let’s just hope he is trying some new things out.

James McDonald was basically stolen from the Dodgers last season in a package from Los Angeles for Dotel. McDonald was dominant in his time with Pittsburgh in only 11 starts with a 3.54 ERA. As a starter he struck out almost a full batter per inning and became the backbone for that staff as the season wound down. McDonald had a slow spring because of a small injury but should be back in the rotation soon. I expect a pretty solid year from McDonald.

If you know me for any amount of time you know that I am a huge Charlie Morton fan. I talked about this with a few people on some podcasts and I really think that Charlie Morton can have the biggest impact on this team, and the staff. Morton made the team as the fifth starter but I really think he could be a middle of the rotation guy that can gobble up some wins this season. He was horrid to start last season, earning him a demotion to AAA for a while. After he came back he was pretty good. I watched him a few times in person and was decently surprised last season and reading about him this spring I am really expecting him to have a big season. A lot of people make fun saying about his “electric stuff” but after he found his sinker he seems to have a lot of confidence which as we have seen is big with Charlie Morton.

The bullpen is pretty decent this year and was a strength of the team last year. Joel Hanrahan and Even Meek will be the mainstays from last season and both will be looked on in the late innings to hold leads and shut the door when the Pirates need it. Right now Hanrahan is tabbed the closer while Meek will most likely be the set up man. This is kind of hit or miss with me because Hanrahan and Meek are so similar in how they throw. Both are right handed pitchers that throw straight gas with a really hard slider. There isn’t much difference between the two, but I guess that isn’t a big deal because neither will work their way through the order too much, but still something to keep in mind.

A guy I think that will help the pen a lot this year, and was very successful last year is Jeff Karstens. I am not going to lie I was not a big Karstens fan before last year but this is a type of guy that every team needs. He is a great teammate and can fill so many different spots. He will mainly be the long relief when a starter can’t go too long and he can also fill in on spot starts. Granted Karstens can only go about four or five innings but for a spot starter that is all you really need. Every team needs a guy like that and Karstens is very valuable on this team.

Chris Resop made the pen late and he should be a nice addition and will be joined by Mike Crotta. Scott Olsen and Garrett Olson are also on the team. That won’t be confusing.



Prediction:

I do think that the Pirates are going to be better. They only won 57 games last year and it would be really, really, hard to do that again this year so that is almost a given. Like I said before this is the first full season for most of the core players so there will be some ups and downs but it should be a lot of fun to see how that evolves and what comes from it. The pitching will be huge for this team, as it is for every team, but with most of the help some years away it might be a few more years to see that impact. Later in the year we will probably see some innings from Rudy Owens and Brian Morris to start a wave pitching prospects that also still loosely includes Brad Lincoln.

One thing I must get off my chest right now. While .500 is something the Pirates have not sniffed in 18 years that is not the goal. You get nothing from just getting to .500 and while it would be nice to break that streak that is not what all this is about. I know people are going to freak out when the Pirates get to .500 but that is not something I will get too overhyped about it. Would we settle for .500 for the Penguins or the Steelers? I doubt it. Granted those teams have a winning rep recently but it was not too long ago the Penguins were in bad times and .500 wasn’t celebrated. Playoff appearances and being in contention for division titles were. I just get so fed up with people thinking 81-81 is the goal, when it is not.

If everything goes the right way maybe this team could get 81 wins, but I doubt it. I can see this team getting somewhere between 70-72 wins with improvement from the core in their first to second years.

So there you have it. My 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview. What do you think? Like it? Hate it? Leave it in the comments and let me know.

2 comments:

  1. I'm so excited about this season. The eternal optimist lives inside me, as apparently it does with you.

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  2. Here's to having some actual major leaguers in the batter order this year. (No offense, Andy LaRoche and Aki Iwamura.) Here's to winning a couple of freakin' road games this year. And here's to no more Zach Duke and Tom Gorzelanny!

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