Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The 2012 Pirates. Were There Any Positives? Yes.

The Pirates finally ended their season and in the end they didn't break "the streak" and they didn't make the playoffs and they did play some pretty bad baseball for the final six weeks of the season. I know you know how bad it was that they went from 16 games over .500 and in the playoff lead to being four games under .500 and weren't even close to sniffing the playoffs. People are upset, frustrated, mad and wanting answers. Hell, who doesn't when you follow the Pirates like I assume you do? It's maddening.

As many people will point out the season is all about context. They are right and that is how it has to be. I know in the preseason I said this was a 72-73 win team and if you told me that this was a 79 win team before the season started I probably would have taken it and not asked any questions. Now I sit here and I wonder what to think about this season and the Pirates won 79 games. It isn't an easy question to answer when you ask about what you think on the season. It was a total failure when you think that this team could have done and how badly they played down the stretch but was the season a total failure? I am not really sure.

I know the season was bad. As much as you want to forget the context of the season you can't do it. It is frustrating as hell to think of what this team could have done but I, for one, am still pretty excited for the 2013 season. Not too many people are really excited about next year and I have heard and seen people talking about they are done with the Pirates because of the back-to-back collapses. It is really hard to take but there were still some really good things that went on this season. Let me touch on a few of them:

1) Andrew McCutchen. He showed that he can be a guy to carry a team when there isn't much else around him. Last season McCutchen was red hot in the first half of the season but barely was able to hit .200 in the second half and a lot of the season people weren't really sure if he could get up into that next level of playing the game. Well, this year I think we saw that. The first half of the season McCutchen was the easy choice for the NL MVP with a .362/.414/.625 line with 18 home runs and a 1.039 OPS. He was out of this world. The second half a lot of people are going to say that he really collapsed just like the team but that really couldn't be more from the truth. Just in the second half alone Cutch hit for a .288/.385/.477 line for a .862 OPS which isn't as good as the first half but lines up almost identical with his .290/.374/.484 career line. Yea, he really went off the deep end. Actually this full season of McCutchen playing well showed us that he can make the adjustments and can be the middle of the order guy that can propel a team on his back when he needs to.

2) Pedro Alvarez. He finally might have figured out how to hit the baseball. It wasn't an easy season for Pedro. Before the year all we heard about was how Pedro was out of shape and about how he should have played winter ball and how he shouldn't even start the year on the major league roster and should have been playing in Indianapolis. After a horrid spring training there were very few who thought he could make an impact. In his first 15 games played he hit only .149/.200/.426 with 19 strikeouts in 50 plate appearances. Woof. It was bad and it was ugly but the Pirates kept plugging him away. He ended the season blasting 30 home runs while hitting .245/.319/.469. His OPS+ of 118 was third best on the team and his .258/.331/.461 second half line is more than anyone could have expected after his terrible season last year and how bad he was in spring training. Seeing this improvement is huge for the outlook of the team in the coming years and while he did strike out better than 30% of his plate appearances just imagine what he could do if he could cut that down to 25%. The talent is in there and he went from being a bust in the first three weeks of the season to being a cog in the middle of the Pirates lineup. Improvement next year and he is going to be scary good at the plate.

3) James McDonald. Just that name alone and you are going to think that he just absolutely bombed in the second half of the season and was one of the biggest parts of the Pirates collapse among others. Hell, when I think of McDonald that is what I think of but to be honest something we can really take going forward is that he can be that number one or number two guy in the rotation. For a full half season McDonald was a frontrunner for the Cy Young and pretty much was doing whatever he wanted on the mound. He held opposing hitters to only a .570 OPS and a .196 average. He was throwing his curveball and slider for strikes and his SO/BB ratio was 3.23/1. It was an impressive start but as impressive his first half was it was the complete opposite in the second half. After the break he threw 78.2 innings and had hitters hitting .269 while he posted over a 7.00 ERA. He was walking a ton of batters and saw his SO/BB ratio drop to 1.70/1 and hitters had a .850 OPS off him. It was bad. While it really couldn't get much worse what I took from the season is what I said before: he can be a top of the rotation guy. Before this year McDonald wasn't able to consistently throw all his pitches for strikes and he rarely got to the seventh inning. He struggled some with command and even though he could get the swing and miss he never really put it all together. This year he did. Maybe it was the help of A.J. Burnett or maybe it was just the right mixture of a number of small things but he flashed that greatness for a half a season which equaled almost 100 innings. We now know he can be that good so his next step is to take it over a full season. I don't expect him to be at a 2.37 ERA like he was for the first half of the season but he CAN be that good and this just isn't hope, he showed us. I am excited to see the adjustments he makes for next year to be more consistent. It's exciting.

4) Garrett Jones. Before the year I wasn't really sure what to think of Jones. He was a guy that the Pirates got off the Twins as a minor league free agent in the 2009 season and since then Jones has been a guy that hasn't been good against lefties and has been the ultimate streak hitter. He can launch baseball's out of the ballpark but since his 21 home run half season in 2009 he went to 21 home runs in a full 2010 season and then only 16 home runs in 2011. I wasn't tied to Jones as being on the team especially considering that he doesn't have a position and he really isn't good at defense, or base running, at all. This year Jones kind of re-broke out for the Pirates hitting 27 home runs and supporting a really solid .275/.318/.519 line and really surprised me with some more consistency which included being able to hit off left handed pitching. Jones had a hotter second half (.282/.344/.538) than the first half (.268/.290/.507) but it really wasn't that big of a difference and it was nice to see Jones with some more consistency. Jones' long string of games without a hit was four games, which he did twice, and was relegated to the first 40 games of the season. After those first 40 games Jones' longest streak was three games which happened twice. To be honest I had no idea it was going to be like that. I thought there would be larger dry spells with more pronounced hot streaks. What I found was some consistency and if the Pirates tender Jones' arbitration, which they should, it will be another welcome hitter in the middle of the lineup.

5) This positive isn't all about the major league team but it is something that is just as important to the Pirates as anything else and that is the young talent that is coming through the season. I am not just talking about Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole but I am talking about the youngsters (so to speak) that have played in the majors this season. Starling Marte, Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson. McPherson and Locke had very strong ends to the season and Marte, despite some injury concerns that caused him to miss a few week, has shown flashes of the kid that everyone was raving about. Along with those three there are the players in the lower levels such as Gregory Polanco and Alen Hason who both have had breakout performances in Class A. This is this wild misnomer that the Pirates have a pretty shoddy minor league system but with Cole in AAA and Taillon in AA we will probably see one, if not both, of them next year in the major leagues. They are pitching well now and if they continue to do so they can be front of the rotation impact arms that the Pirates lack. Marte is going to improve. He has struggled with plate discipline but the flashes he has shown has to have you excited to see more. McPherson was brought up basically from AA and flashed a very good fastball that got into the mid 90's as well as some nice secondary pitches. Jeff Locke showed the development through his few starts with the big club where he held a strong SO/BB ratio of 34/11 and despite his 5.00+ ERA if it comes down to Locke or McPherson for the fifth spot the I am more than OK with that. This isn't saying that the farm system is perfect or that every single guy that performed well this year is going to work out but there are some guys to be excited about and some of them saw some time this year and got their feet wet.

Those are just a few points that I took from this year. Let me repeat again that this season was not a good one. The context doesn't allow it to be and really it is what it is, a bad season. There are plenty of problems with this team that include but are not limited to the terrible base running, horrible plate discipline, poor defense of base running and just really bad bench play. These are all things that are very valid concerns and this wasn't meant to sugar coat the season.

While it was a really bad season that doesn't mean there weren't good things at happened. In my eyes there were some really good things that I touched on here and there is still some more that you could go through. You can't go back and change this to make the Pirates a 87 or 90 win team from all of this but it doesn't mean that the Pirates are a total loss for 2013 and there is no hope. Addition and subtraction needs to be made and the Pirates need to add at positions such as catcher but lets not pretend like the season was a total loss with no positives. That just isn't true.

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