Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Pittsburgh Pirates 2012 Season Preview

Take a look at Pittsburgh from an outsider's point of view for a second. Think about how ridiculous of a notion it is that a city erupted with excitement for a team that still lost 90 games last year. Now take a look at it from the seat of Bob Nutting, the owner of the Pittsburgh Pirates. He saw the stands of PNC Park fill when the Pirates were in first place last season. He saw that this is truly a baseball town. And being able to see that has inspired him to put some money into his team. But will the results show this season?

Corner Infield: These two spots on the field for the Pirates may have the most questions than all of the other positions combined. In fact, it is one of the only places where there is still a battle for a roster spot going on. Matt Hague and Josh Harrison have each had outstanding springs. Unfortunately for Harrison, Hague has almost made it impossible for the Pirates to send him down. He leads the team with seven home runs for a guy that was projected to have limited power and he's shown ability to get the ball into the gaps. Assuming Hague makes the team, he will likely platoon with Pedro Alvarez at third base since Alvarez is rather useless against left handed pitching. Hague being able to spell Alvarez will also allow for a platoon situation at first base. Garrett Jones is another player who isn't exactly outstanding against left handed pitching. Casey McGehee should get the extra playing time over there and could possibly come up with a job full time if he reverts back to his form of two years ago when he hit 23 home runs.

Middle Infield: To save the length of this post, I am going to include catchers in this section. Catcher is a position where eight different guys started a game last season. The Pirates went out and signed Rod Barajas who has had a bit of a power surge late in his career. He hit 17 home runs for the Los Angeles Dodgers last season but he doesn't hit for average. He is also older which will mean that Mike McKenry will see a significant amount of time as the backup catcher. Neil Walker is one of the few staples on this team as the second baseman but this is an important year for him. He's looking for a contract extension and he struggled late last season with the bat. He is rather limited as a defensive player. But he is batting cleanup when he is probably better served batting somewhere closer to the six hole. He's going to need a big year with the bat to get that extension. The Pirates also have a new shortstop in Clint Barmes who is highly touted as an excellent defensive shortstop. That will be key especially since the position is no longer one in MLB that relies heavily on the player's offensive prowess.

Outfield: Six more years of Andrew McCutchen is something that no Pirates fan is going to complain about. He is not only the staple of the outfield, but the face of the franchise. His running mates in the outfield will also stay the same as they were at the end of last season. Alex Presley is going to play in left field this season and bat lead off. He has pressure on him though because he is going to have to swing the bat the way he did last year. The Pirates organization ultimately doesn't think much of him but he has forced their hand. With Nate McLouth on the bench and rising star Starling Marte in AAA, Presley is going to have people breathing down his neck. Jose Tabata is going to transition to right field this season after battling hamstring troubles for a large portion of last season. This is going to have to be a bounce back year for him after his injury plagued 2011 since he also received a contract extension last season. Luckily for him, that fact has been largely overshadowed by McCutchen.

Starting Pitching: The starters for the Pirates outperformed themselves for much of last season which was a big reason for their success early in the year. What's even more promising is that they got even better this year. They may struggle at first with arguably the two best pitchers starting on the disabled list. The Pirates acquired A.J. Burnett from the New York Yankees but he will be out about a month after bunting a baseball into his eye. Burnett struggled mightily as a Yankee but he is returning to the National League where he had a lot of success in his days as a Florida Marlin. Charlie Morton is the other starter on the disabled list, though he will return about midway through April. Morton is an interesting case because his success will largely hinge on how he adjusts against left handed bats. Opposing managers learned last year that loading their lineups with left handers was a good way to beat Morton. The Pirates also brought in Erik Bedard who will be their Opening Day starter. Bedard hasn't been a great pitcher since 2007 but that isn't because of a lack of talent. It is because he has not been able to stay healthy. Ultimately, that is the only thing to be concerned about with him. James McDonald adds to the new look Pirates' pitching staff that is more adept at striking people out than years past. The concern with McDonald is his consistency and his control. He has a history of being unable to pitch late into games which has been taxing on the bullpen. Lastly, Jeff Karstens will look to build off of a career year last season. He is not the most overpowering pitcher in the world. He'll strike next to nobody out. But he knows how to pitch and has excellent control. His control is almost too good judging by the 23 home runs that he allowed last year. Fortunately, all but three of them were solo shots. Kevin Correia will start the season in the rotation due to injuries but he will ultimately be a long reliever. He was an All-Star selection last year.

Bullpen: Correia is going to be the long relief guy once all the starting pitchers are healthy. Until that point, Chris Leroux and Tony Watson will likely share that duty depending on the situation. Joel Hanrahan will return as the closer after the breakout season that he had. While the shelf life is rather short on closers, nothing has shown that he won't have a season like last year again. The concern in the bullpen last season was with the eighth inning. With Evan Meek hurt for most of the season and largely ineffective when he was healthy, the eighth inning was pitched by committee. The now departed Jose Veras as well as Chris Resop did most of the duty. They were both decent in the role but didn't blow anybody away. Meek is going to get another shot in that role this season but in case he struggles, Jason Grilli will be the one taking over and he was outstanding late last year after being acquired from the Colorado Rockies.

There are your 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates. A team that will likely be helped more from what happened to other teams than what happened to them. Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder are now out of the division and the league after each of them signed with American League ball clubs. However, this team still is not ready to contend. More likely than not, we are looking at out 20th straight season of losing. That isn't to say that they aren't headed in the right direction. They are. But if you are looking for a winner, you are probably going to be waiting at least one more season.

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