2011 in Review & 2012 Outlook
The Pittsburgh Pirates were the surprise feel-good story of the season for a good portion of 2011, but they eventually succumbed to the rigors of a long season, riding a 10-game losing streak to an 8-22 August. Pittsburgh's final record of 72-90 earned them a fourth place finish in the 6-team NL Central, but the final number really doesn't reflect how positive the season was for the franchise.
It might seem a little weird to say that a team that finished 18-41 needs to carry momentum into the next year, but that's precisely what the Pirates will try to do. Odds are they'll be in about the same place in September as they were last September, but a stacked farm system provides hope that they can be a respectable team again soon.
Gorgeous PNC Park plays as a pitcher's park, but not extremely so. The power alleys are located a good distance from home plate (389 & 375), with the usual taper happening very close to the line in left field. There's something of a short porch in right field, but it doesn't allow as many home runs as you might think based on its dimensions, thanks to a 21-foot high wall. Still, left-handed pull hitters benefit (just so) from playing in this park, while their counterparts suffer. PNC is consistently one of the most stingy ballparks when it comes to giving up home runs to left field, though if a hitter happens to hit a line drive right down the line, it has a chance of getting out. Left-handed batters should be given a slight bump (conversely, right-handed pitchers should be docked slightly) when they play in Pittsburgh. A more extreme adjustment is necessary for right-handed hitters (down) and left-handed pitchers (up).
Manager & Coaching Staff
Clint Hurdle is a former hitting coach who frankly knows how to manage bad teams. His hire prior to last season probably has something to do with his history in Colorado, where he took over a Rockies team in the early stages of a rebuilding process in 2002 and took them to a World Series just 5 years later. The Pirates will have to whip up some magic to win a pennant by 2016, but stranger things have happened, I suppose. Hurdle is one of my favorite managers in the league, so naturally I believe that he's on the short list of guys capable of taking them to the promised land...in time, of course.
Expected Position Battles
Pedro Alvarez and Casey McGehee will compete for the title of "Pirates Third Baseman That Everybody Should Probably Ignore But Won't Because We Live in a Culture That Ogles Trainwrecks, Especially When One of Those Trains is a Former First Round Pick." The favorite for this title bout is Alvarez, but I like McGehee in the fight, as he can OPS over .600 and hit double digit home runs, but just barely on both counts. Alvarez does have youth and handedness on his side, but what good are those things when your OBP is less than the batting average of three of your teammates (on a poor hitting team)? Yeesh. Could Yamaico Navarro step up and take this job? (Please?)
Projected Lineup & Rotation
Jose Tabata - RF
Alex Presley - LF
Andrew McCutchen - CF
Neil Walker - 2B
Garrett Jones -1B
Casey McGehee - 3B
Clint Barmes - SS
Rod Barajas - C
This is the lineup that Hurdle may or may not use. Let's talk about pirates. I feel like the Pirates are an underappreciated mascot name, because pirates are inherently awesome. In a world where Phillies, Wild, Chargers, and White Sox are actual names that actual teams go by without any sense of shame or remorse or irony, the pirate stands out as a fantastic mascot, and the story about how they came by the name is pretty cool: The Pittsburgh Alleghenys exploited a loophole to pick up second baseman Lou Bierbrauer from the Philadelphia Athletics after they failed to file the proper paperwork on him, and the Athletics called the action "piratical." The team adopted the nickname almost sarcastically, and they've had one of the best names in baseball ever since. More teams should be named after doers of nefarious deeds.
So, um, Tabata is going to lead off and McCutchen is going to hit third. You probably knew that already.
A lot of noise has been made recently about the Pirates' reported interest in trading for A.J. Burnett. If it happens,
Karstens Correia(?) will probably make way and head to the bullpen, and Burnett will become almost fantasy relevant again.
Charlie Morton is questionable to start the season after undergoing surgery on his hip over the offseason. Fun fact: A different Charlie Morton was a player/manager for the 1884 Toledo Blue Stockings, as well as the 1885 Detroit Wolverines of the National League. The Wolverines went 7-31 while he was manager, and believe it or not, his batting average over 22 games (.177) was actually less than his winning percentage (.184). Morton struck out 10 times in 1885, which is only slightly less than the modern-day Morton's strikeout total last season.
If Joel Hanrahan were on a better team, he might be a top 5 closer. He contributes in every category and saved 40 games for a 72 win team last year. Buy. Unfortunately, there's not much value to be had elsewhere in this pen, as anybody who can contribute decent stats won't give you enough innings to make the investment worthwhile.
Potential Fantasy Sleeper
Alex Presley had a nice 2011, hitting .298/.339/.465 in 231 plate appearances and stealing 9 bases in the process. He was slowed by a left thumb contusion that forced him to miss a month's worth of games in July and August. At first glance, his average may look unsustainable thanks to a BABIP of .349, but based on his batted ball profile, his xBABIP was actually .351, suggesting he may be able to approach .300 again. Projections have him stealing around 15-20 bases, but given regular playing time, I think he can better that. A guy who can give you average and steals and also has a starting gig should be going higher than 89, which is 4th outfielder territory.
Spring Training Storylines to Watch
It's no doubt a tough job to be a beat reporter for a team that hasn't finished above .500 in almost 20 years, so I almost felt bad for chuckling when I came across an article that breathlessly stated that Erik Bedard has spent the offseason getting ready instead of getting healthy for the first time since 2006. Hey, I'd be looking for an excuse to be optimistic, too. Watch and take note of how the Pirates handle Bedard. They'll obviously be careful, but if team officials start to sound like they're trying to manage expectations in interviews, run away.
You'll want to keep an eye on the third base situation as well, just like you would with any position battle. But if one of Alvarez or McGehee start to show signs of life, you may just have a bargain on your hands, because nobody will be touching that with a ten-foot pole. I'm not saying you should do anything drastic like use a draft pick on either guy, but it's nice to have a short list of guys that could outperform their perceived value.