How much better will the Pirates be this year? How much better do they need to be?

I don’t think it’s much of a prediction to say that the Pirates will be better in 2011 than they were in 2010. It’s pretty hard to be worse than 57-105; in fact, even the Pirates didn’t really play like a 105-loss team in the second half of the season. Once Jose Tabata and Pedro Alvarez had been up for a while and began to hit and the pitching staff leveled out a bit, the Pirates were more like a 99-loss team after last year’s All-Star break based on run differential. That’s not great, obviously, but it’s a lot better than the club was in the first half of 2010 when Andy LaRoche and Aki Iwamura were sucking the life out of the offense and the pitching staff was a comical parade of Quadruple-A rejects. So I think 99 losses is our baseline instead of 105. 

So how do the Pirates improve from a 99-loss team? Obviously, the club is counting on their core four young position players to be better because that’s always the hope with young players. I think that’s a safe bet with Andrew McCutchen; remember that he barely hit at all in July (.661 OPS) or August (.732) after his shoulder problems. Those are by far his two worst monthly splits in his career and other than those two months, April, May, June, and September were improvements over 2009 for him. If he’s healthy for a full year, he’s going to be better than he was last year. I really think it’s that easy.

The other three are a bit harder to figure. I know I’ve written about this before, but I like Tabata more than a lot of people for a reason I just can’t quite put my finger on. I think it’s encouraging that as a 21-year old, he just about duplicated his career minor league line at the big league level. He’s been playing way young at every level in the minors and hit right around .300/.350/.400 at every stop. So how does he improve now that there’s no new level to move up to? Is it a little more power? Is it a better batting average? Or is this the player Tabata’s going to be as a Major Leaguer? Like I said, I like Tabata a lot, but the crystal ball is still kind of cloudy for me at the moment. I really want to watch him over a full Major League season. The same goes with Neil Walker, to a degree. After looking at his minor league numbers, I felt a little bit better about his rookie breakout not being a mirage. The guy can obviously hit the ball hard and as I said, I think that the 15-homer/30-double type power might be real. But will he do that with a .320 OBP or a .350 OBP? It’s an important question, especially if he can’t improve his defense at second base. 

And then there’s Pedro. He’s as streaky as anyone; when he’s lost at the plate, he’s really lost. When he’s locked in, it’s almost surprising when he doesn’t hit a home run. His rookie line was pretty solid; his .343 wOBA was better than everyone on the team but McCutchen and Walker last year. The Pirates need him to be something more than that, though. He needs to be a real middle of the lineup guy and to be that, he’s just got to put the ball in play a bit more. He’s capable of it and I think Clint Hurdle is the right coach to help him, I’d just really feel a lot better if I actually saw it happen.

I’m interested to see how regularly Clint Hurdle employs the platoon opportunities given to him by Neal Huntington. There’s a good chance that Overbay/Pearce and Jones/Diaz could be much better both defensively and offensively than Jones/Clement/Milledge/Church nightmare combo at those two positions last year. At two of the most important offensive positions in the lineup, the Pirates were just flat out terrible. I think there’s some advantage there to be exploited, but not if Hurdle ignores the platoon and plays Diaz against righties, or Jones/Overbay against lefties. The depth that Overbay and Diaz create along with the Bowker/Pearce/Jones/Doumit collective at those two corner spots is nice, though. Guys like Bowker and Pearce are interesting but pretty unproven and not terribly likely to be every day players. Still, if someone like Diaz tanks (he just looked really old to me when I was in Florida and I don’t have a great feeling about him) like Ryan Church did last year, there’s no excuse to keep running him out there on even a semi-regular basis. Out of the whole group of Overbay, Diaz, Jones, Pearce, Bowker, and Doumit there’s not one superstar or potential superstar, but if Hurdle juggles things right you can see how it’s possible to get production from both positions. 

The same thing is true of the pitching staff, to a degree. The Pirates pitching won’t be great this year, but they gave 45 starts to Jeff Karstens, Brian Burres, Daniel McCutchen, Dana Eveland, and Chris Jakubauskas in 2010. They gave Charlie Morton 10 brutal starts before putting him on the DL, in part because there was no one to put in his place. That’s almost a third of the season right there, more or less punted on before the games even started. A rotation of James McDonald, Ross Ohlendorf, Paul Maholm, Kevin Correia, and Charlie Morton isn’t striking fear into the heart of anyone, but if they can at least take the ball regularly until Rudy Owens or Brad Lincoln or Justin Wilson or even Bryan Morris and/or Jeff Locke are ready for call-ups, they might be able to avoid being such a fiasco. Morton and McDonald are the two most important pitchers on the staff; they both have the talent to be middle/upper-middle rotation guys and get the strikeouts necessary to take the weight off of the Pirates’ defense and actually win a game or two on their own. Maybe the second most important thing to the pitching staff is early season health. If Ross Ohlendorf’s back acts up or James McDonald has a setback, we probably will see Karstens or Burres in the rotation. If they can at least stay healthy until June or so, we might avoid that and be better simply by eliminating the cannon fodder (with cannon fodder meaning non-rotation types like Karstens and Burres, not back-end rotation types like Correia and Maholm). 

 At this time of the year, people always ask me for my win predictions for the season. My gut says that this is a 65-win team at worst and a 75-win team at best, but that’s not important.Tthe truth is that the number of games the Pirates win isn’t all that important this year when compared with how they win them. If Tabata and Walker and Alvarez have huge years, but the 1B/RF consortium collapses on itself and the pitching is terrible outside of McDonald and Morton and the team only wins 65 games, that’s not an awful year. If Alvarez and Walker and Morton lay eggs, but Overbay and Diaz and Doumit/Snyder and Cedeno rake while Correia and Maholm put up articificially low ERAs and the Pirates win 75 games, that’s a bad year. 

What’s perhaps most important of all is this: if Neal Huntington’s plan is going to have a chance of working, we’re going to know when the 2011 season ends. That’s both exhilarating and terrifying. It’s not meaningless, though, and that’s a good place to start. 

Pat Lackey

About Pat Lackey

In 2005, I started a WHYGAVS instead of working on organic chemistry homework. Many years later, I've written about baseball and the Pirates for a number of sites all across the internet, but WHYGAVS is still my home. I still haven't finished that O-Chem homework, though.