Baseball is back in Pittsburgh, but this year is different. Maybe not to your casual fan who only likes the Steelers and Penguins, but to the diehard Bucco fans, this year isn’t like the last 19. Sure we’ve gone into every Pirates season hoping for the best, but let’s be honest, that was all just wishful thinking. We saw what this team is capable of from early to mid summer last season, and it captivated the entire city. Yeah the Bucs were pretty awful from August on, but that stretch of six weeks was the best we’ve seen the team play in a while. So going into this season, fans have something to look forward to. The Pirates aren’t that horrible team that every other team expects to stomp on every time they play. This team has an identity now, and has earned respect around the league. And with that, we’ll take a look at YOUR 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates.
Starting Rotation – The Pirates starting rotation was a bright spot for the Pirates in 2011. Although there wasn’t a “staff ace”, each and every guy was able to piece together some decent starts. The consistency of the rotation in the first half was what kept the Bucs in the race for so long. Long-time Pirate Paul Maholm left the club and signed with the Cubs, but he was replaced with southpaw Erik Bedard. Bedard brings experience and a lengthy list of injuries with him to Pittsburgh. He pitched pretty well in spring training and will get the start on Opening Day. James McDonald looks to emerge as a top starter after plenty of inconsistency in 2011. J-Mac shows signs of promise at times, but then soon reverts back to being unable to locate his pitches. He struggled to get past the 6th inning last season, which is something he needs to avoid in 2012 to be successful. Jeff Karstens was arguably the most impressive pitcher for the Pirates last season. Karstens went 9-9 with a 3.38 ERA, and should be consistent again this season. Kevin Correia will be in the rotation to start the season. He was an All-Star last year but wasn’t good at home and was horrible in the second half before being shut down for the season. He could be booted from the rotation when newcomer A.J. Burnett comes off the DL. Burnett, who was hurt in a freak bunting accident, comes to Pittsburgh from the Yankees, where he didn’t pitch very well. However, many believe that he will do well for the Bucs now that he is out of the spotlight of New York. Charlie Morton will also start on the DL but will be back by mid-April. Morton had some great starts in 2011, but also some very bad ones. Hopefully he can be more consistent this season. Nonetheless, Charlie should be solid for the Pirates this summer.
Bullpen – The bullpen is anchored by All-Star closer Joel Hanrahan. Hanrahan is coming off his best season, in which he had 40 saves and an ERA of 1.83. The Hammer looks to continue his success in 2012. The setup men for Hanrahan will mostly consist of Evan Meek, Jason Grilli, and Juan Cruz. Meek missed last season due to injury, but will hopefully return to his All-Star form from 2010. Grilli came over in the middle of last season and pitched well for the Bucs. Cruz was a non-roster invitee but impressed the coaching staff in spring training. The well-traveled Cruz has played 11 MLB seasons, and seems to be this year’s version of Jose Veras. Chris Resop appeared in 76 games last season, as Hurdle put him in many tough situations. Tony Watson is the lone lefty in the ‘pen. Jared Hughes was the last man in, after Chris Leroux went to the 60-day DL.
Rod Barajas comes to Pittsburgh after signing a one-year deal in November. Barajas replaces the injury-prone Ryan Doumit. Throughout his career, Barajas has been pretty consistent offensively; he hits for some power (11, 19, 17, and 16 home runs each of the last four seasons) but doesn’t get on-base very much. However, he is a much better defender than Doumit was. One concern about Barajas is his age, as he is now 36 which is pretty old for a starting catcher. Backing him up is fan-favorite Michael McKenry. “The Fort” is a solid defender but not much of a hitter. The 27 year-old hit .222 last season with 2 HR and 11 RBI. There isn’t much in the system in terms of catching. Tony Sanchez endured a wasted season last year, and will have to repeat Double-A. He is starting the year in Altoona with hopes of reaching Triple-A Indianapolis by mid-season. Eric Fryer, who appeared in 10 games for the Pirates last season, could see some time in Pittsburgh again this season.
In terms of offensive production, the infielders are the biggest question mark heading into the season, led by Pedro Alvarez. Can Pedro hit above the Mendoza line and provide some power for the middle of the lineup? Will Casey McGehee bounce back and hit like he did in 2010 with Milwaukee? Can Garrett Jones step up and provide consistent production, instead of being the streaky hitter we have seen in the past few years? How will Clint Barmes hit in a much bigger PNC Park? Obviously, the Pirates need better offense throughout the entire lineup than what they received. However, the guys in the middle of the order, such as Alvarez, Jones, McGehee, etc., really need to step up if the Pirates want to win some ballgames. Neil Walker was a pretty clutch hitter for the Bucs last season, but still lacks some power and average. He dropped 23 points in batting average from 2010 to 2011 (.296 to .273) and hit the same amount of homers (12) both season despite having 193 more plate appearances in 2011. Matt Hague led the Grapefruit League with 7 HR, which was the most ST homers for the Pirates since Craig Wilson hit 8 in 2005. Yamaico Navarro and Josh Harrison are both unproven hitters that have a lot of defensive versatility. On defense, the Pirates should be pretty steady in the infield. Although they aren’t Gold Glovers, they should get the job done for a mostly pitch-to-contact staff. Barmes has been sure-handed and slick throughout his career. Walker can be an above-average fielder over at 2B. Alvarez is more athletic than you think and should be able to hold down the hot corner.
The Pirates stabilized their outfield for the next six years when they signed centerfielder Andrew McCutchen to an extension just a few weeks ago. Cutch is coming off a solid year in which he was selected to his first All-Star Game. He hit well in the first half but struggled in the 2nd part of the season, especially in September. Due to his lackluster second half, he ended up hitting just .259. Still, he was able to put up 23 homers, 89 RBI, and 23 stolen bases, becoming the first Pirate since Nate McLouth to join the 20-20 club. Speaking of McLouth, Nate is back with the Pirates after a few years in Atlanta. Although McLouth won’t put up the numbers he did when he was an All-Star in ’08, he should still be a decent 4th outfielder that can play all three positions. Jose Tabata, fresh off an extension he signed in August, will be the Opening Day rightfielder for the Pirates. He still has yet to find his power stroke in the big leagues, but has the ability to hit for average. The same can be said of Alex Presley, starting in LF for the Bucs. Presley hit .298 in 52 games last season. Unless he endures a sophomore slump or was a one-year wonder, Presley should be able to stick around .300 but without much power. Although there isn’t much power in the Pirates OF, they all have tons of speed. Each of the 4 outfield can run well and should make up for the power outage by stealing plenty of bases. In the field, they all seem to be above-average fielders. McLouth won a Gold Glove with the Pirates in 2008 and McCutchen has made a number of fantastic catches. Tabata has a strong arm from right field and Presley has the speed to cover lots of ground in the spacious left field at PNC Park. Top prospect Starling Marte is waiting to make his MLB debut, as he’ll start the year at AAA Indy. Marte had a great season for Altoona last year (won the batting title) and also tore it up for a few weeks in spring training (3 HR, .520 avg in 12 games). If Presley struggles or anyone suffers an injury, Marte could get the call very soon. Gorkys Hernandez is waiting in AAA as well. Although he isn’t much of a hitter, Hernandez is one of the best defenders in the organization.
Clint Hurdle, Manager
Gregg Ritchie, Hitting Coach
Ray Searage, Pitching Coach
Luis Silverio, First Base Coach
Nick Leyva, Third Base Coach
Jeff Banister, Bench Coach
Bob Nutting, Chairman of the Board
Frank Coonelly, President
Neal Huntington, General Manager
It’s hard to look at this roster and not be optimistic about what could happen this season. Despite improvements made in the offseason, this team just isn’t quite ready become a winning team. Our projected record for the 2012 Bucs is 78-84. Of course, there are a few scenarios that you have to take into consideration this year. Will anyone get hurt? What moves, if any, will the team make at the trade dealine? But just looking at what the team has going into Opening Day, it looks like the Bucs will improve on their 2011 season, but not enough to reach .500. But hey, if the Pirates went out there and completely proved us wrong, no one would mind.