As many of you know, I am from Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Pirates are my team. As such, I’ve decided to dedicate an entire blog entry to their 2012 preview, rather than lumping them in with a division preview. In case you missed my division previews, you can read my AL East Preview, AL Central Preview, AL West and NL Central preview by clicking on the links provided.
I’ve decided to post this preview now, on the eve of the Pirates first grapefruit league game – tomorrow vs Toronto.
The Pirates were in first place in late July last year before everything fell apart. A blown call by Jerry Meals at the plate in the 19th inning of a game in Atlanta seemed to trigger a monumental collapse, as the Pirates finished the season with a 19-43 record.
The National League Central is a weaker division in 2012, having seen the departures of its two best hitters via free agency; Albert Pujols from the Cardinals to the Angels and Prince Fielder from the Brewers to the Tigers.
Let’s see what the Pirates have heading into the season.
The catching position was a bit of a mess last year for the Pirates. They used EIGHT different catchers last year. Michael McKenry received the most at bats, but struggled by and large, hitting .222. Ryan Doumit, Chris Snyder, Jason Jaramillo, Dusty Brown, Eric Fryer, Matt Pagnozzi, and Wyatt Torregas also saw time at catcher in 2011.
To add stability, general manager Neil Huntington added catcher Rod Barajas during the offseason.
Barajas has been a durable major league catcher throughout his career and brings power to the table. His troublesome spot is hit batting average and on base percentage. On the whole, this is an upgrade over what the Pirates had last year.
Fox has seen time in the majors before, playing most recently with the Orioles last year. He is a career .237 hitter in the big leagues with 20 home runs in 489 at bats. He’s got some power. He has also had years in the minor leagues where he’s hit 21, 24, 25, and 31 home runs. He’s got more pop, so I personally hope that he makes the team over McKenry, just from a batting practice perspective. I’ve seen the guy hit in BP in Baltimore. He does very well in BP. He can also play first base.
Last year at first base, the Pirates had Derrek Lee for the last two months, who took over for an inept Lyle Overbay, who was ultimately released. Lee broke his wrist and missed time, but did have a good month with the Pirates, hitting .337 with 7 homers in 101 at bats. The Pirates wanted him back, but Lee snubbed the city of Pittsburgh and turned down the Pirates arbitration offer, hoping to play for a ‘better’ team or get more money. He’s still currently unemployed, which should please many Pirates fans.
So without Lee, the Pirates are turning to plan B. At first base this year, there will be a platoon situation with Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee.
When looking at the splits, McGehee, acquired by the Pirates for Jose Veras over the winter hit just .169 against lefties in 2011. That defies convential wisdom, since he is a right handed batter. In his career, he is a .261 hitter vs lefies, so hopefully ’11 was an aberration.
Both Jones and McGehee are coming off of down years. McGehee hit .223 with 13 home runs last season. In 2009 he hit .301 with 16 homers, and .285 with 23 homers and 104 RBIs in 2010. He has reported to camp much lighter than last season, which could result in better athleticism and a better season.
Jones burst onto the scene in 2009 with 21 homers in 314 at bats and followed it up with another 21 homer season in 592 at bats in 2010. Last year he lost his way a bit, hitting 16 in 423 at bats. Hit batting average was also a career low .243.
My thoughts about this platoon? I think it’s a slight upgrade over last year. Overbay was just terrible for the first three months of the season. If the Jones/McGehee tandem can hit .260/30/100 while they play the 1B position collectively – it’ll be huge.
Third base was a major problem area for the Buccos last year. Pedro Alvarez, the Pirates #1 draft pick, and #2 overall was a complete bust. He looked completely lost at the plate and his season was a disaster. He was hurt with a strained quad, and then was demoted to the minors. The Pirates once envisioned Alvarez as a guy that could hit 30-40 homers by taking advantage of the short porch in right field at PNC Park. Alvarez certainly has the power – I’ve seen him launch bomb after bomb over the right field wall in batting practice, but has had problems mentally and with conditioning.
Last season the Pirates relied on Josh Harrison to fill the void at third while Alvarez was out. Harrison was a good replacement, but he is just that – a replacement level player.
During the offseason, the Pirates let Ronny Cedeno walk, disappointed that the shortstop never reached his full potential. Cedeno was often distracted and not always focused on the game. As a result, he often had lapses on both sides of the ball and often times found himself in the manager’s doghouse.
Huntington signed Clint Barmes to take Cedeno’s spot as the starting shortstop. Barmes is a sound defender and an okay hitter. He hit .244 last year with 12 homers – no where near his career high of 23 homers in 2009. However, 12 actually was his second best home run season. A lot of fans are expecting a lot of power from Barnes. I would advise them not to be too optimistic. If Barnes can give the Pirates .250 with 15 homers, we should all take it. By the way, Cedeno hit 2 homers with a .249 average last year, so Barmes represents a slight upgrade.
In the outfield, the Pirates are set in left field with Alex Presley in left, Andrew McCutchen in center, and Jose Tabata in right. The fourth outfielder position will go to Nate McLouth. Last year, the Pirates had Ryan Ludwick/Jose Tabata/Alex Presley in left for most of the season, and a failed Garrett Jones/Matt Diaz platoon in right field.
McCutchen is the face of the franchise. Last year he hit just .259 with 23 homers – perhaps pressing a bit to jump start the anemic offense. McCutchen has a new stance in 2011 – an open one – and hopes that it will help him stay on the ball better.
Jose Tabata was signed to a six year contract during the 2011 season despite playing just a year in the big leagues. Many fans question his age – he is listed as 23 – and power – career high in the big leagues is 4 (in the minors his best HR year was 8).
Nate McLouth will receive plenty of at bats as the team’s fourth outfielder. He was an All Star for the Pirates in 2008 before being traded away for Charlie Morton, Gorkys Hernandez, and Jeff Locke (all of whom are still with the Pirates.) McLouth was awful in Atlanta. He hit .198 and .228 there with virtually no power. Even seeing him in batting practice was painful. It was like watching a high schooler hit.
The Pirates most important part of their team in regards to their success will be their starting pitching. Last season, the Pirates were in first place or in contention for much of the first half because their starting pitching was over achieving. The second half, the starting pitching crumbled, as did the Pirates season.
This year, the Pirates brought in AJ Burnett to be the ace. They are paying him $13 million over 2 seasons. Fans in Pittsburgh were excited. It’s been a long time since we had a big name starting pitcher, even if Burnett had struggled a bit the last few seasons. Burnett’s arrival was going to bump one of the Pirates pitchers from the rotation and create a competition for a rotation spot – likely between Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens. However, it never happened, as Burnett bunted a ball off of his face, breaking an oribital bone.
He’s now out for 8-12 weeks, and the Pirates don’t expect him back until June. Terrible luck.
Without Burnett, the Pirates will look to another new starter in their rotation to help right the ship. Erik Bedard was brought in via free agency to give the Pirates depth. Bedard has had some success in his career, but is often injured. He’s only pitched over 150 innings in his ten year career twice. Last season he went a combined 5-9 with a 3.62 ERA and 125 K’s in 129 innings for the Mariners and Red Sox. He brings the strikeout to a rotation that often pitched to contact last year.
James McDonald was acquired two years ago from the Dodgers for Octavio Dotel. McDonald was 9-9 with a 4.21 ERA last year with 142 K’s for the Pirates last year. He struggled at the outset of the season, but was one of the Pirates better starters late in the season. I think he is the most likely to have a breakout season in 2012.
Charlie Morton was a complete surprise in 2011. He was 2-12 with a 7.57 ERA in 2010. Last year, he was ace-like. He went 10-10 with a 3.83 ERA and induced ground ball after ground ball. He became nicknamed ‘Ground Chuck.’ He LED the National League in home run ratio – allowing just 0.3 homers per nine innings. Morton had hip surgery in the offseason, and is participating in Spring Training, but is a few days behind the other Pirates pitchers. It stands to reason that he likely will open the season with the club, but may start out as the team’s fifth starter just as a precaution.
Jeff Karstens was another complete surprise last year. Karstens bounced back and forth between the bullpen and rotation in 2009 and 2010, posting losing records and ERA’s of 5.42 and 4.92. When an injury to Ross Ohlendorf gave him a chance last year, Karstens ran with it. He never stopped. He was the Pirates ace last season, often among the top 5 in the National League in Earned Run Average. He finished up the season at 3.38. It will be very interesting to see what Karstens does to follow up his breakout campaign.
Kevin Correia was an All Star in 2011, but the completely tanked. He finished with a 4.79 ERA, but tanked it in the second half, becoming injured and posting a 7.23 ERA. He also could not perform at PNC Park. His ERA at home was 7.71 with a 2-8 record. To me, if Burnett would’ve stayed healthy, he was most likely to be demoted from the rotation to a long relief role in the bullpen. However, Correia gets a chance to prove that he belongs in April and May in 2012.
Brad Lincoln, the Pirates #1 pick in 2006 serves as insurance if a starter gets hurt. He has a minor league option left and will likely begin the season in the minors. I know hindsight is 20/20, but guess who was taken after Brad Lincoln in the draft? Clayton Kershaw, Tim Linecum, Max Scherzer, Ian Kennedy, and Chris Perez.
The bullpen looks pretty set. Joel Hanrahan will close games.
Evan Meek, returning from an injury in 2011, will likely be the set up man. Meek’s injury hurt the team last year, as the team struggled to find someone to be successful in the set up role.
Chris Resop could serve as the 7th inning guy if he can be consistent. Rounding out the bullpen would be Jason Grilli, Daniel McCutchen, and Tony Watson. Daniel Moskos or Chris Leroux could also be in the mix.
The bullpen was very solid last year for the Bucs. It looks to be the same in 2012.
So now it’s time for a prediction.
Taking into account the losses and using the stat WAR (wins above replacement):
Paul Maholm, Ronny Cedeno, Derrek Lee, Ryan Ludwick, Jose Veras, Xavier Paul, Matt Diaz and Ryan Doumit are attributed with 6.6 wins. Meaning that they were worth 6.7 wins more than a typical replacement player. Maholm was most valuable with a WAR of 2.6.
The Pirates have 6 new players:
AJ Burnett, Erik Bedard, Rod Barajas, Casey McGehee, Nate McLouth, and Clint Barmes . Those six are worth 7.1 wins. Clint Barmes was most valuable at 2.9 WAR in 2011. McGehee was -1.0. Burnett was worth 1.1, although he had a down year.
On paper, the Pirates look like they should go 73-89, a one win improvement from 2012.
That’s not what you want to hear though. That’s not what I want to hear. So, I’m going to get away from the stats and project that Andrew McCutchen improves over a bit of a junior slump, and that Evan Meek returns to his dominant 2010 self, and that Pedro Alvarez finally breaks out.
My prediction is 81-81, which will bring an end to 19 seasons of losing, and mark the Pirates first winning season since 1992.
2012 Statistical Projections (from baseball yearbook. Avg-HR-Rbi)
C Rod Barajas .233-21-63
1B Garrett Jones .247-18-66
2B Neil Walker .278-11-68
3B Pedro Alvarez .219-5-32 (Alvarez isn’t even a starter in the BY projections)
3B Casey McGehee .243-16-74
SS Clint Barmes .253-14-5
LF Alex Presley .291-9-43
CF Andrew McCutchen .262-20-77
RF Jose Tabata .278-5-32
SP Jeff Karstens 10-12, 3.77 ERA, 177 IP, 110 K
SP Charlie Morton 9-13, 4.57 ERA, 167 IP, 130 K
SP James McDonald 10-12, 4.14 ERA, 185 IP, 159 K
SP Erik Bedard 6-8, 3.35 ERA, 116 IP, 115 K
SP Kevin Correia 10-10, 5.01 ERA, 147 IP, 92 K
SP AJ Burnett 12-12, 5.19 ERA, 186 IP, 163 K
RP Joel Hanrahan 2.81 ERA, 35 saves, 67 IP, 74 K
RP Evan Meek 2.54 ERA, 3 saves, 64 IP, 55 K
The season basically rests on if Alvarez can finally perform or not. No pressure Pedro.
What are your thoughts on how the Buccos will finish? I think they’ll finish 4th.
There’s only 34 days until opening day, and 1 day (TOMORROW) until the first broadcasted game on MLB TV (Yankees vs Phillies). And, just 2 more days to win this LA Dodgers shirt.