It feels like a lifetime ago, but last April was a brutal month for the Pirates' position players. The Pirates scored 58 runs in 22 games (2.6 runs per game). Andrew McCutchen didn't hit a home run, Pedro Alvarez went 0-for-the-first-two-weeks-or-so, Neil Walker continued a power outage that had started in the middle of 2011, and most of the rest of the lineup was absolutely terrible, too. Things picked up in May, but only a little bit — the Bucs scored 89 runs in 28 games (3.1 per game). In June and July, Andrew McCutchen exploded and the Pirate offense shot into orbit with him. They scored 276 runs in 54 games in those two months (5.1 per game). Even as the Pirates collapsed in August and September, the offense didn't really revert back to it's ugly early season form, with 228 runs scored over the club's final 61 games (3.7 per game).
The final result was that even though they didn't even average three runs per game over the season's first two months, the Pirates scored 651 runs and finished 10th in the National League in terms of runs. The run scoring environment is quite a bit different in 2012 than it has been in the past (in 2006, for example, the Pirates scored 691 runs and finished last in the NL) but that tenth place finish is somewhat noteworthy; it was only the third time since PNC Park opened that the Pirates finished in the NL's top ten in terms of runs scored. In a 16 team league this is a sad thing to be excited about, but we Pirate fans take what we can get.
The Pirates need to be better than that at the plate in 2013, though. Really, they're going to need the offense to carry the pitching for at least the season's first two months and quite probably for even longer than that if the team is going to be worth watching at all in 2013. The good news is that this doesn't seem like an impossible proposition. The Pirates managed their mid-season offensive explosion and their almost-average offense in 2012 despite quite a few hurdles. An incomplete list:
– Clint Barmes sucking the life out of 493 plate appearances with an insane OPS+ of 66.
– Rod Barajas being very nearly as bad as Barmes.
– Many of the club's corner outfield at-bats going to Alex Presley (370 PAs, 89 OPS+), Jose Tabata (374 PAs, 86 OPS+), and Travis Snider (145 PAs, 84 OPS+).
– Not that he got a ton of plate appearances or anything but I'd like to remind you that Nate McLouth had an OPS+ of 10 with the Pirates last year. Like, it was so low that you almost have to spell it out in a sentence instead of using digits.
– Clint Hurdle.
– That's an easy joke, but seriously: 73 stolen bases (last in the NL), with 52 caught stealings (most in the NL), along with (by my count) 30 sacrifice bunts and who knows how many sacrifice bunt attempts by position players alone.
There is good news here. Barajas is long gone, replaced by Russell Martin. Martin is not Buster Posey, but he should still have some pop in his bat and he should take a few walks. An OPS+ of 90 isn't great, but it's not awful for a catcher and it's much better than Barajas was last year. It's also true that it seems like Barmes should be better at the plate this year simply by virtue of being a human being with a pulse and a baseball bat. Again, I'm not expecting Barmes to suddenly morph into Cal Ripken, but if he just draws a few more walks and gets his wOBA up into the .280 range and fields like he did last year, he'll be just fine at short.
The outfield should be better, too. Starling Marte is not a sure thing to match his minor league numbers right off the bat, but I think if he's allowed to play he can at least match his triple-slash line from last year, which was .257/.300/.437. That's not great, but it's definitely better than what the Pirates had in the corners for most of last year. His ceiling is much different than Presley and Tabata's too, and it's possible that he could be quite a bit better than that. Snider and Tabata might not reach the potential that was once forecast for them, but it's not hard to think that they could make an acceptable platoon in right field. Neither was very good last year, but Snider battled hamstring injuries for much of his time in Pittsburgh and Tabata dealt with who-knows-what-but-it-seemed-like-something in a more intangible form. Again, it's possible for those two to be an improvement on last year without being All-Stars.
There are, on the flip side, reasons to be pessimistic. It seems pretty crazy to think that Mike McKenry will hit a home run once ever 23 or 24 plate appearances, although there's just not enough information about The Fort to really know either way at this point. There is plenty of information on Garrett Jones, though, and it's enough to know that we probably shouldn't expect 27 more home runs out of him. Pedro Alvarez could really go in any direction. I've got serious concerns about Neil Walker's ability to play 162 games, and the club still doesn't really have a solid replacement for him in the event he gets hurt again. Once you run past the platoons (Tabata/Snider, Jones/Gaby Sanchez), the bench is flat-out awful, which means that there's not a whole lot of room to spare with injuries.
If we take all of this together, I think it's probably fair to say that the Pirates offense will be better this year than it was last year. Even if you assume a small drop off for McCutchen, as we discussed on Wednesday, I think that a full season of Marte (even if he doesn't go nuts), plus a Snider/Tabata platoon, plus the potential that Pedro Alvarez draws some more walks and becomes a legitimate middle-of-the-order threat, which is something that he really only threatened at last year. Really, I think it's possible that the Pirates could finish with an NL-average offense this year or maybe even a little better, dependent mainly on Marte and Alvarez.
The larger question, of course, is whether the offense being a little better is enough to offset the worries about depth and the pitching staff. That's not an easy question to tackle, but I'll try in the forthcoming season preview, which will be posted either Sunday afternoon or Monday morning.