We have officially hit the most depressing part of the 2012 MLB post-mortems: the teams that had legitimate playoff hopes this year, before things went terribly wrong. To be fair, it's hard to think of a sadder baseball story than these 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates. After 19 straight losing seasons, the Pirates were in the cat-bird seat for the final NL wild card on August 8 with a 63-47 record. They were far from a sure thing for a playoff spot, but every Pirate fan assumed that at the very least their record streak (as in, record for all North American sports franchises, not just Major League Baseball) of 19 consecutive losing seasons would end. As we stand on September 27th, the Pirates have been eliminated from the playoffs with a full week of baseball left to play, and they need six wins in their final seven games to clinch a winning season. Since August 29th, they've only won one game against a team other than the Cubs or the Astros and that win was on Tuesday against the Mets.
And yet! No one pegged the Pirates as contenders before the 2012 season started, and in March even the most optimistic Pirate fan would've likely been happy with 76 (or 77, or 78, or whatever) wins. No one in Pirate land is happy about finishing below .500 after being 16 games over with 52 left on the schedule, but it's also impossible to deny that the Pirates made some kind of progress in 2012. The big question that lingers now is whether or not some kind of progress is enough progress for 2013 to truly be different in PNC Park.
If you're new here (which about 90% of our reader base is in comparison to last year), here's a brief explanation: after a team is eliminated from the playoffs, we're going to put their season under a microscope and look at just what the hell went wrong, what went right, and so on and so forth. The goal is to post these the day after a team is eliminated.
What Went Right: In three seasons before 2012, Andrew McCutchen hit .286/.365/.471, .286/.365/.449, and .254/.364/.456. There was some concern before the 2012 season that he'd hit his head on some kind of ceiling, that he'd basically had three similar seasons and that there wasn't much room for him to improve. Pirate fans, though, hoped for something else. McCutchen's 2009 and 2010 lines seemed almost identical, but he sacrificed some power to lower his strikeout rate. In 2011, his average went down and his strikeouts went up, but his power and plate patience took a big leap forward. Which is to say that McCutchen's numbers for his first three years may have seemed superficially similar, but each year showed that the way those numbers were being generated was shifting and that McCutchen wasn't necessarily going to be pegged to a 125 OPS+ for forever.
As we stand on September 27th, McCutchen's hitting .336/.408/.566. It's true that he owes some of his success this year to what's probably an unrepeatedly high BABIP, but his power leapt to a new level and he introduced America to Dialed In Andrew McCutchen, who hit .387/.447/.700 with 19 homers in 67 games from May 17 to August 3. At the height of his powers, he hit .490/,533/.929 with 11 homers in 24 games from June 19 to July 17. None of that was a typo. Andrew McCutchen made The Leap in 2012 and the best part for the Pirates is that they locked him up through at least 2017 before the season even began. This is exactly what the Pirates have been waiting for since Barry Bonds left after 1992.
What Went Wrong: Other than everything, post-August 8? The biggest problem that the Pirates have had in the second half of this season is that their pitching, which was one of the best staffs in baseball for the early part of 2012, has completely fallen apart. That includes James McDonald and his 2.37/7.37 first half/second half ERA splits, that includes AJ Burnett's growing fatigue and Jeff Karstens' injury, that includes Wandy Rodriguez's early struggles in a Pirate uniform (though he's been the Pirates' best pitcher by far recently), that includes Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson being not ready for the big leagues, and the bullpen meltdown after Brad Lincoln was traded to the Blue Jays and Jason Grilli and Jared Hughes failed to match their solid first half numbers. The main problem was really depth; the Pirates were strong in the first half but completely unprepared to replace pitchers that got injured or faltered.
Most Surprising Player: In 2011, Pedro Alvarez hit .191/.272/.289 and earned himself a demotion to Triple-A. He couldn't hit anything in spring training, and in his first ten games of 2012 he drew one walk and only had two hits (both home runs). Just as people started to throw around the word "bust" and wonder if he needed to be demoted to Triple-A again, Alvarez caught fire and after a second slump from early May until mid June, Alvarez has been a surprisingly consistent hitter for the Pirates in 2012. After 142 games, his triple-slash line is up to .242/.326/.476, he's got 30 home runs and 23 doubles, and as the season has worn on he's drawing more walks to help his OBP creep upwards towards respectly. He's always going to strike out a ton, but Alvarez's power has finally started to shine through in 2012 and since he's still just 25, there's plenty of reason for the Pirates to hope he can be a middle of the lineup fixture for them.
Most Disappointing Player: This is probably a tie between McDonald, for his awful second half, and Jose Tabata, for taking a big step backwards instead of forward. McDonald looked like a burgeoning ace in the season's first half; he cruised into the All-Star break with 100 strikeouts and just 31 walks in 110 innings, which provided a solid foundation for his 2.38 ERA. His new slider was baffling hitters, and he seemed like one of the biggest All-Star snubs in the National League. Since the break, he surpassed his first half walk total by seven in just 61 innings and his homer total doubled from 7 to 14. He was so bad, the Pirates removed him from the rotation a couple weeks ago, while still nominally in the wild card race.
Tabata, meanwhile, started the year with a chance to be the Pirates' right fielder/leadoff man of the future. That was before he hit .230/.295/.341 in his first 72 games. He weirdly feuded with Clint Hurdle (he insisted he was dealing with a hamstring injury and played like he was, but Hurdle said he wasn't and put him out on the field pretty much every night). Eventually, he got demoted to Triple-A where he moped around for two weeks before pulling himself together. He's been back with the Pirates since August 19 and he's done better (.288/.381/.370), but he's probably behind Starling Marte and Travis Snider in the Pirate outfield hierarchy moving on.
Prospects Up: This is where there's plenty of good news for the Pirates. Their last two first round picks, Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole, both continued their ascent through the system with good results. Cole, last year's first overall pick, started the year out in High-A and after an uneven start settled in nicely. That earned him a promotion to Double-A, where he made 12 strong starts before a late-season promotion to Triple-A. He'll likely start there and Pirate fans can probably expect to see him by mid-summer 2013. Taillon, the second overall pick in 2010 but younger than Cole as a high school draftee, was slightly more uneven in High-A as he worked to refine his full arsenal, but he earned a late-season promotion to Double-A where he turned in three straight dominating starts. Both pitchers opened up 2012 in Baseball America's top 15 prospects and they'll likely be ranked in about the same range this winter.
Maybe the best news for the Pirates, though, is that the international scouting department that they completely overhauled back in 2007 has finally started to bear fruit. Starling Marte followed up his 2011 breakout at Double-A with a great 99-game stint in Triple-A (.286/.347/.500, 21 doubles, 13 triples, 12 homers) that earned him a promotion to the Pirates. He's still very raw and has had his ups and downs, but his defense (both in terms of outfield ground covered and his cannon arm) are clearly ready for the big leagues and his .255/.302/.416 line in his first 41 games is acceptable for a player that only came to America in 2009. In addition to Marte, two young Dominicans broke onto the scene with Single-A West Virginia. 19-year old middle infielder Alen Hanson batted .309/.381/.528 with a whopping 62 extra base hits (33 doubles, 13 triples, 16 homers). 20-year old outfielder Gregory Polanco came from almost nowhere to hit .325/.388/.522 with 26 doubles and 16 homers of his own. Both players should find themselves in Baseball America's top 100 this winter. On top of all of that, 17-year old Mexican pitcher Luis Heredia had a strong season with State College in the New York Penn League, putting up a 2.71 ERA over 14 starts. His strikeout rate was a bit low (5.4 K/9), but his control was very good (2.7 BB/9) and as the season wore on reports were putting his fastball in the mid-90s. As the youngest player in a league generally populated by college draft picks, Heredia had a great season.
Prospects Down: It wasn't all good news for the Pirates on the prospect front, as most of their 2009 draft looks like it could be a waste at this point in time. That year's first round pick — catcher Tony Sanchez — started the year off repeating Double-A and was promoted despite some struggles at the plate. Over the full season he hit .251/.338/.401 across both levels, which isn't bad for a catcher but isn't great for a 24-year old college draft pick that's still in the minors. The Pirates picked quite a few high school pitchers in the middle rounds of that year's draft that they lured away from college with big signing bonuses, and Zack Dodson and Zack Von Rosenberg are both still in Single-A.
The Future: The Pirates are in a weird place right now. They're definitely getting closer at the big league level, but they're far from a complete team and besides Cole and Taillon, their best prospects are in the lowest levels of the minors. That means that they need to find a shorstop and a catcher, and their rotation probably needs even more help than Cole can lend in the immeidate future. All that will have to come through trades (which have been a mixed bag at best for GM Neal Huntington) and free agency (an unmitigated disaster for Huntington thus far). The Pirates are getting better, but they're not quite good enough yet and there's not an immediately obvious path for them to get there.