It was a tale of two seasons for the Pirates in 2011. In their first 100 games, the Pirates went 53-47 and found themselves tied for the NL Central lead. In the last 62 games, they went 19-43, clinching a 19th consecutive losing season and falling to fourth place in the Central. So which Pirates are the real Pirates? Is their epic losing streak nearing an end, or will 2012 bring more frustration to the Steel City?
WHAT WENT RIGHT
The Pirates won 72 games. That might seem unimpressive, but it’s the most games the Pirates managed to win in a season since 2004, so it’s at least a step in the right direction. That’s especially true after their 105-loss debacle in 2010. Beyond that, Andrew McCutchen took another step forward in his path to stardom. Despite a September slump, he set a career high with 23 homers and increased his slugging percentage to a career-best .456 while keeping his OBP right at his career rate of .365. His defense improved quite a bit, too. There was also some improvement in the pitching staff. It went from completely abysmal in 2010 (866 runs allowed) to below-average in 2011 (710 allowed). Like the win total, though, progress is progress when it comes to the Pirates.
WHAT WENT WRONG
They only scored 610 runs. Before the season started, the club’s hopes for 2011 seemingly rested on the shoulders of four young position players — McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata — and of that group really only McCutchen delivered in a significant way. Neal Huntington’s off-season signings (Lyle Overbay, Matt Diaz) were disastrously bad, and an offense that was supposed to take a big leap forward from the 587-run nightmare team of 2010 barely saw an uptick in runs scored at all. When the pitching staff, which was excellent through the first 100 games but really didn’t have the peripherals to support the small amount of runs they’d allowed, collapsed, the offense wasn’t there to pick them up and that’s why the season ended as poorly as it did for the Pirates.
In 2010, Charlie Morton got shelled in start after start. He gave up 15 homers in 79 2/3 innings, he had a ridiculous 7.57 ERA, and hitters slugged .522 against him. What was supposed to be a promising career had taken a turn for the worse. Over the winter, Morton worked with the Pirate coaching staff to change his arm angle and became a power-sinker pitcher. His homer rate plummted (he only gave up six in 171 2/3 innings) and he induced groundballs almost 60% of the time. He’s might not ever be an ace like the guy who’s mechanics he mimics (Roy Halladay), but he was very effective in 2011 and if he can improve his control and find a good secondary pitch to use against lefties, he might still have room to improve.
As a rookie in 2010, Alvarez hit .256/.326/.461 with 16 homers in 95 games. Not bad for a guy that had just a little more than one full year of professional baseball. He got off to an awful start in 2011, putting up a .536 OPS in April. Just as it seemed like he might’ve been heating up in May, he went down with a hamstring injury. His performance during his rehab was far from impressive, and so his rehab stint was extended into a full-blown demotion. He was called back up to the big league club after a spate of injuries in July, but he was miserable there (.174/.230/.246 with one homer in 20 games) and was subsequently re-demoted for the end of the minor league season. He came back up to the Pirates in September, but played sparingly. On the season, he hit .191/.272/.289 with just four homers with the Pirates and now no one knows what to make of the guy that was one of the team’s most promising young players just a year ago.
The catching tandem of Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder is gone, as is long-time rotation mainstay Paul Maholm. The team has decent depth in the minor league system at the catching position, but most of those players are in the low minors. That means that right now, the club is looking at a Mike McKenry/Matt Pagnozzi/Eric Fryer platoon, with only Fryer providing a glimmer of hope of getting any sort of offensive production from the position. The Bucs will likely look outside the organization for help there, but they’re not likely to swing any sort of major trade for a young catcher due to the presence of Tony Sanchez (who will likely start the year in Triple-A and could earn a promotion mid-year), Ramon Cabrera, and Carlos Paulino in the system. The absence of Maholm creates a big void in the rotation, as now only Morton and James McDonald can really be counted on to give the team above-replacement innings. They’ll probably look outside the organization for pitching help, but recruiting free agents to Pittsburgh has been a hard sell in the past and a 72-win season probably won’t have changed that.
The Pirates have a few guys locked in for 2012: the whole outfield of Tabata, McCutchen, and Alex Presley seems certain to start. Walker will play second. Alvarez will have to come to spring healthy and in shape and earn playing time at first or third base and Garrett Jones will likely compete with either Alvarez or a free agent signing for time at first. Young fringe prospects Jordy Mercer and Chase d’Arnaud figure to push Ronny Cedeno at short and they could join with Josh Harrison to compete for playing time at third in the scenario that Alvarez is still struggling. The rotation will certainly include McDonald and Jeff Karstens, plus Morton as soon as he recovers from hip surgery (he’s expected to be ready around opening day right now), with guys like Brad Lincoln, Kevin Correia, and possibly even youngsters like Jeff Locke and Rudy Owens fighting for the last couple spots.