When will this nightmare end? - Bee Movie
In recent years I have become fascinated with the Pittsburgh Pirates and hopeful that they'd finally post a winning season. It's not because I care about the city (never been there) or their sports teams (I hate the Steelers) but I am a huge fan of underdogs or teams that have had long stretches of futility.
Call it "the Seattle" in me.
The Pirates haven't had a winning season since 1992 and they have finished in last place in nine of the last nineteen seasons. But hope is on the horizon.
Last season the Pirates won 15 more games than they did in 2010 (from 57 to 72) and improved in several key areas of the game... few of which will help a fantasy owner. In 2010, the Pirates had the worst UZR/150 in the majors but improved to 20th last season. They had the worst team ERA in 2010 (5.00) but had a 4.05 ERA last season. Unfortunately, they were still the fourth worst hitting team in the majors based on wRC+.
If the Pirates want to win 82 games this season, it's going to have to come with better hitting and pitching, and which players could provide that and help your fantasy team? Let's look.
Best Hitter - Andrew McCutchen
If the Pirates really want to change their ways, then McCutchen will be a Pittsburgh lifer and not traded before he hits free agency like past Pirates All-Stars have been.
There's no competition for who the best Pirates player is. He is the franchise.
Last season, he hit .259/.364/.456 with 23 HR, 89 RBI, 87 R, 23 SB, .291 BABIP, .198 ISO, 18.6% K. There were improvements to his game, but also some steps back, such as the higher rate of strikeouts and the lower batting average. But he hit 7 more home runs than he ever had in his career, drove in a ton more runs, and walked at a career-high rate.
He's only 25, meaning that we probably haven't seen the best of Andrew McCutchen. Pencil him in for .270/.370/.470, 25 HR, 90 RBI, 90 R, 25 SB, if not more of all of that. He's a potential MVP of the Grady Sizemore (good version) mold.
Best Pitcher - Joel Hanrahan, CL
Yeah, not a lot to see in the rotation. The Pirates #1 starter is supposedly Erik Bedard, whose 129.1 innings in 2011 were the most he'd had since 2007 by a long shot. It's possible that by 2014 they could have two aces in Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon, but today the rotation is only good by Pirates' standards.
In 2011, Hanrahan had the third-highest WAR for a Pirates pitcher, but only by .2 WAR and he did it in over 100 fewer innings.
The hard-throwing righty posted extremely good strikeout numbers in 2010 and then became the closer last season. After never saving more than 10 games in a season, he saved 40 last year while posting a 1.83 ERA and 2.18 FIP. His strikeouts went way down, but so did his walks, making him one of the most effective relievers in baseball last year and still posting good K numbers.
Expect 35-40 saves, an ERA around 2.00 and a K/9 of 9.00.
Possible Breakout - Pedro Alvarez, 3B
The former top prospect was one of the worst players in the major leagues last season, posting a -.8 WAR in only 262 PAs, hitting .191/.272/.289 with a scary 30.5% strikeout rate. So, why a possible breakout?
Because he still has the tools to be a middle-of-the-order hitter. Because he posted an OPS+ of 112 (average 100) in 2010 and hit .256/.326/.461 as a rookie with 16 HR. We've seen Alvarez do better than this. Much like we had once seen Alex Gordon show major league promise before he started to lose it and then found it again last year.
Alvarez has always been a strikeout machine, but he's shown that he can be a strikeout machine that's productive at least. There is very little that's keeping Alvarez from winning the 3B job and he's coming into Spring Training in good shape (though we all know how that story goes.)
The team will have mostly "veterans" playing in 2012, making Alvarez the most likely sleeper to start the year.
Erik Bedard is also a candidate to bounce back, because if he is healthy he has an ability to post high strikeouts and a move to the NL is a good thing, but he's unlikely to make 25 starts.
Possible Disappointment - Neil Walker, 2B
Walker has been good over the last two years offensively, for a second baseman. He's hit .280/.338/.423 in his career with 12 HR in each of the last two seasons.
Still, one has to wonder if he's peaked.
He posted worse numbers in 2011 over a full season compared to his 110 game 2010, seeing a significant drop in BA, OBP, and SLG when his BABIP dropped to a reasonable .315 from the .340 BABIP he posted in 2010. He does not have good power (.134 ISO) and he's not a threat to steal (10 SB would be a career high) and there are a lot of good offensive 2B in the league right now.
Overall, Walker is a good player, but have we seen the best of him and did we see it two years ago?
Erik Bedard is also a candidate to disappoint!
Rookie Watch - Starling Marte, OF
Gerrit Cole is their top prospect, but has yet to pitch in the minor leagues. 2011 draftee Josh Bell is probably the Pirates best overall hitting prospect, but is years away. Leaving Marte as the most likely rookie to make an impact this year, depending on the health, production, and ability to stay out of trouble of C Tony Sanchez.
Marte has hit well at every level, and had his best season to date in 2011: .332/.370/.500, 12 HR, 24 SB, 38 2B at AA. He needs to walk more, strike out less, and be more efficient on the base paths (12 CS) but the only thing standing in the way of him and the majors is Alex Presley, Nate McClouth, and the health of Jose Tabata.
If Marte/McCutchen/Tabata all played OF at the same time, the Pirates could have the fasted outfield in the majors. His ceiling might not be as high as Bell, but it's very likely that Marte will play in Pittsburgh at some point this year.
Note: At the time of writing this, A.J. Burnett is not a Pirate. Maybe he's a Pirate when you read this. I still wouldn't put him on any of these lists, but a move back to the NL should be a good thing for him and he can still rack up strikeouts.
I Don't Know What To Do With You: Bedard!