Pittsburgh Pirates 2011 Season in Review

Hal and everyone can project Lord’s flight’s own terminus an instant before impact. For a brief moment that Hal will later regard as completely and uncomfortably bizarre, Hal feels at his own face to see whether he is wincing. The distant whistle patweets. Lord does indeed go headfirst down through the monitor’s screen, and stays there, his sneakers in the air and his warm-up pants sagging upward to reveal black socks. There’d been a bad sound of glass.
-David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jes

Six months ago, I sat in a rental car outside of a gas station in Bradenton, Florida with my dad and my uncle.

“OK, Patrick,” my dad said, ”I want a real answer to my question. How many games are the Pirates going to win this year?” He’d been asking our entire trip, and I hadn’t answered because I was trying to really get a feel for what the 2011 Pirates were capable of.

“I think they’ll win 70-75 games,” I finally told him.

“That’s way too many. You saw how awful they were last year. How does a team that was that bad make such a big leap forward?”

For the rest of the ride back to our hotel, we talked about the four young position players that the Pirates had their hopes pinned on and the way that young players can improve by leaps and bounds. About the improved depth in the rotation and on the bench and just in general that it seemed like the Pirates should have for the coming season. About the way that the team improved once they ditched guys like Andy LaRoche and Lastings Milledge for guys like Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata, to the point that they were really maybe a 95-loss team in the second half of 2010 instead of a 105-loss team. 

For 100 games, the Pirates did practically nothing that I said in the car that day that would make them better, and they were in first place. Jose Tabata slumped and got injured. Pedro Alvarez slumped, got injured, and came back worse than he was before the injury. Neil Walker was solid but unspectacular. Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz, the guys that were supposed to be the depth, were terrible. The pitching staff was improved but mostly existing on smoke and mirrors. 

I was torn. On one hand, it was easy to see the signs of an impending collapse. On the other, the Pirates were good! It’d been such a long time since we Pirate fans have had anything at all to cheer, that I wanted to kick back and enjoy the ride as it was happening. Winning is fun, no matter how your team is doing it. After such a long, long time without any winning to enjoy, you’d have to be stone cold dead inside to not enjoy what the Pirates did in the first part of 2011. 

When the collapse came, though, it was worse than anyone could’ve expected. They didn’t fade away as the Brewers took over and their schedule got tougher. They didn’t even burn out. They supernovaed and collapsed into a dense mass that sunk in the standings. It was brutal to watch. I never though the Pirates were that good over the first 100 games, but I never thought they were a bumbling team of idiots that was worse than the Astros, either. Seeing at eam play so well and fall apart so completely is maybe the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do as a Pirate fan. It was brutal.

It’s hard to judge a season that swings so wildly. It’s hard to remember now, but there were good things that happened for the Pirates this year. Andrew McCutchen tailed off at the end of the season, but he played like a superstar for the better part of five months. Charlie Morton and quite a few relievers took big steps forward. That gave me quite a bit of faith in the people that teach pitching in the organization, which is important given that most of the team’s prospects are pitchers. The defense was improved quite a bit, especially in the outfield with the shifts gone.

The problem is that plenty of bad things happened, too. When 2011 opened, we hoped the Pirates had four good young hitters they could build an offense around. Jose Tabata spent most of the year injured, a troubling trend in his young career, and didn’t develop any power at all. Neil Walker didn’t quite regress back to his bad Triple-A numbers, but he looks more like a back of the lineup guy than someone to anchor the middle or top of the order. Pedro Alvarez got lost at sea and I’m not sure anyone has any idea if he’s coming back. That means that the offense is Andrew McCutchen and eight other guys, which isn’t going to cut it. The four minor league pitchers that were supposed to bridge the gap from Paul Maholm to Jameson Taillon and Garrett Cole all struggled. Rudy Owens fell apart at Triple-A, Jeff Locke moved slower than expected through Double-A, and Bryan Morris and Justin Wilson are in the bullpen. Besides Starling Marte, it looks like it’s possible that there’s not much help on the way from the minors until Cole and Taillon, who are still a ways away from the Majors. 

When I predicted 70-75 wins in spring training, I honestly thought that the team coming that far forward in 2011 could be the precursor to an 85-win season in 2012. Today, it seems more possible that this 72-win season could be the precursor to a 65-win year in 2012.

That’s the curse of the first half the Pirates had: I’m kind of dreading the thought of the team going back to being a mediocre, 65-70 win team the entire season next year. It’s going to be hard to watch. The Pirates do have a plan and they are moving in the right direction, but I’m not really sure how quickly they’re moving anymore or exactly how far they’re going. That’s a frustrating place to be, especially after we got a taste of something other than last place for 100 games this year. The Pirates lost 105 games in 2010 and they only lost 90 in 2011, but I’m not sure that I’m more optimistic about next year than I was at this point a year ago.

That sounds really negative, and it is. It’s not all negative, though. If Pedro Alvarez turns things around and Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon move through the system the way we hope they do and Starling Marte becomes an impact player at the big league level in 2012 and Neal Huntington makes a couple of shrewd moves, the Pirates will be in an awfully good place pretty quickly. That’s a ton of ifs, for sure, but it’s been a long time since you could look at the Pirates and their minor league system and see a contender. It might be a little hazy, but it’s there now. That’s a 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.

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