Pittsburgh Pirates’ President Frank Coonelly created quite the stir in February of 2011, when he asked long-suffering fans to show up in far greater numbers to watch a historically underperforming club before the Pirates would consider raising payroll. Akin to “Give me a fire and then I’ll buy you some wood,” Pirates’ fans nonetheless responded in droves- a sheer testament to their loyalty that has been tried for 19 straight seasons and counting. PNC Park’s turnstiles whirred to an average of 24,255 per game in 2011, up from 19,918 in 2010- a bottom line-bolstering increase of over 4,300 fans per game.
And in return…the 2012 Pirates’ payroll actually decreased (?!?) to $44.3 million, down from a $45.047 million payroll that already ranked the club 28th out of 30 teams in 2011.
Not only has ownership not followed through on their promise to fans, but even the money GM Neal Huntington has spent this offseason netted suspect players unnecessary for a ballclub perennially advertised as “young and rebuilding.” The Pirates gave 33-year old SS Clint Barmes $10,500,000 over two years, despite his career .302 OBP and 78 OPS+. They shelled out another $4,000,000 ($7.5MM with 2013 option) to 36-year old C Rod Barajas, who is as questionable defensively as former backstop Ryan Doumit, yet also saddles his clubs with a nearly unheard of .284 career OBP. A 7-8-9 of Barajas, Barmes, and the pitcher’s spot will create an OBP black hole, effectively reducing the Pirates’ scoring opportunities from nine innings per game down to six.
And speaking of pitchers, the Pirates dealt two farmhands to the Yankees for 35-year old SP A.J. Burnett, who over the past three seasons has the highest ERA in all of baseball of pitchers that have made 90 starts or more. Despite salary relief from the Bronx Bombers, the Pirates are on the hook for $13,000,000 owed to Burnett in 2012 and 2013. But he won’t be the only 30-something in the Pirates’ rotation, as the Pirates also landed the successful but oft-injured 33-year old SP Erik Bedard on a $4,500,000 deal, joining 2011 free agent signing SP Kevin Correia (31 years old, $4,000,000 remaining).
For a team that prides itself on organizational depth, the Pirates spent the majority of the offseason spending significant sums on declining veterans due to a clear lack of internal options. So will these additions somehow break an already record-setting franchise losing streak on the verge of two full decades of futility?
Best Case Scenario for 2012
The Pirates will wise up and cease their unexplained public blackballing of elite CF Andrew McCutchen, and lock up the young All-Star to a contract extension in the neighborhood of the 6-year, $51,000,000 deal fellow CF Jay Bruce signed with the Reds. 3B Pedro Alvarez shows up to camp in shape, motivated, and rebounds from one of the most disappointing statistical seasons in recent Pirates’ history to become the 30HR, middle-of-the-order bat the Pirates crucially need. AA C Tony Sanchez bounces back from controversies both on and off the field to regain his prospect status, and fellow AA-AAA farmhands SP Kyle McPherson, 1B Matt Hague, and high-ceiling CF Starling Marte help bridge the gap between the current club, and the highly-touted draft picks incubating at Rookie Ball to High-A. (For excellent prospect rankings, visit http://bullpenbanter.com/)
Most Important Pirates
While Alvarez may be the lynchpin to the 2012, the 25-year old McCutchen is the team’s one unquestioned star. Despite a second half swoon in 2011, he still posted a cumulative .820 OPS with 23 SB, a career-high 23 home runs, and is averaging a remarkable 123 OPS+ over his first three seasons. With an agent in Steve Hammond that likes his players to test free agency sooner rather than later, if McCutchen has another phenomenal year, he could well price himself out of any extension with the Pirates.
Potential Breakout Players
Updates from the Pirates on young farmhands SP Gerrit Cole (1st pick overall, 2011), Jameson Taillon (2nd overall, 2010), and Luis Heredia (2010 international signing), and OF Josh Bell (2nd round pick, 2011) will deluge fans in 2012, as the club tries to squeeze more patience out of a fanbase that would put the Bible’s Job to shame. But at the MLB level, the one potential breakout prospect the Pirates possess is AAA CF Starling Marte. Already known for his rangey defense, the 23-year old posted an .332BA/.370OPB/.500SLG line in AA Altoona in 2011, in a ballpark normally known for sapping offensive production. Marte has to be one of the reasons the Pirates are playing so loose with Andrew McCutchen extension talks, though the team would be well-served to envision an outfield with McCutchen shifting to LF to make room for Marte in center.
Worst Case Scenario for 2012
The Pirates quickly understand why there was little other interest in the crew of 30-somethings they acquired in the offseason. Burnett, Bedard, Barmes, and Barajas fail to live up to the “Killer B’s” nickname that will clearly be brandied about in 2012 (much to the disdain of the real Killer B’s from the early-90’s teams), continuing their statistical declines with some nasty age-regression to boot. Pedro Alvarez somewhat rebounds from his abysmal .561 OPS in 2011, but continues to struggle making contact, finishing below an .800 OPS, casting serious doubt as to whether he’ll live up to expectations. Few prospects emerge to help the MLB club, as the team’s best players continue to be former-GM Dave Littlefield holdovers McCutchen and 2B Neil Walker.
Biggest Areas of Concern
For a GM entering his 5th full season on the job, Neal Huntington desperately needs to have some of his draft picks begin paying dividends at the Major League level. While he carries a reputation as a sound drafter and talent evaluator, fans often forget that Huntington had two full drafts prior to bringing in Cole, Taillon, Heredia, and Bell over the past two years. To date, the GM has zero SP or RP draftees reach the MLB level, and only two hitters- Alvarez and UTIL Chase D’Arnaud- both with underwhelming results in 2011. Although the club signed Huntington to a three-year cost-saving extension in September, he could find himself on the hot seat this October. To date, the Pirates’ 2008-2011 record of 258-389 (.399) under Huntington is over 30 points worse than Littlefield’s aggregate 421-549 (.434) from 2002-2007, despite Dave Littlefield being one of the worst GMs in recent MLB history.
Who Needs to Rebound
The afrorementioned Alvarez is rebound candidate 1-A-prime-star-star. Without a resurgence, the lineup looks abysmal, and Alvarez did little in the offseason to quiet fears, by refusing to refine his approach in Winter Ball. One of Huntington’s most under-the-radar offseason additions- yet potentially his most lucrative- was sneaking 3B/1B Casey McGehee away from the Milwaukee Brewers for effective-but-inconsistent RP Jose Veras. McGehee’s 2011 shocked the Brewers, as he dropped from OPSs of .859 (2009) and .801 (2010) all the way down to an Alvarezian .626 with a 69OPS+ over a brutal 155 games. The Pirates haven’t had much luck with reclamation projects, but they also haven’t taken one on with McGehee’s past record of success. If McGehee returns to 2009 (or even 2010) form, he’ll be a productive bat on a team where they’re few and far between.
On the minor league front, former 1st-round pick (#4 overall, 2009) C Tony Sanchez made headlines for all of the wrong reasons in 2011. Sanchez hit national news circuits after posting negative comments about Eastern League (AA) umpires on his Twitter account, struggled to throw out base runners in an area long-considered his strength, and saw his production plummet from an .870 OPS (A+) in 2010 to a .658 OPS at AA. And if that wasn’t enough, Sanchez re-broke his jaw in an offseason bar fight that casts doubt on whether the Pirates should’ve passed on higher-ceiling talent in the 2009 draft for the signable player with well-regarded character and leadership.
Overall, this team is a near-lock to become the first franchise in North American professional sports history to lose for a 20th straight season. The Pirates may be able to fight off the inevitable for a few months- as did the 2011 team before finishing 72-90- but the true indicators of this franchise’s future lie quietly in the lowest levels of their farm system, where the most avid of fans will once again be watching patiently.
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