Follow me on Twitter @jim_krug (Opening image credit, ESPN)
Rewind to July 19, 2011. The Pittsburgh Pirates- losers for 18-straight seasons- stood a surprising 7 games over .500, well within reach of the NL Central pennant. Two months later, the club finished 18 games under .500, setting a record for the largest W/L swing by a division leader in MLB history, and building on the franchise’s already record-setting streak with their 19th losing season in a row.
Fast forward. With this Friday’s victory over the Detroit Tigers, the 2012 Pirates find themselves in similar company, albeit a month earlier. Despite a -7 run differential, the club sits 5 games over .500, only 1 game back from the division-leading Cincinnati Reds, and is 34-17 over their past 51 games. So does the losing streak finally break right before the humiliating 2-decade mark of futility, and if so, can the Pirates think playoffs? Or is this another cruel illusion forced on a fanbase now accustomed to them? Let’s compare both scenarios as briefly as possible.
Scenario 1: Yes, the Pirates WILL finish above .500, and challenge for the NL Central Pennant
1. With Prince Fielder gone, Albert Pujols gone, and Chris Carpenter injured, the NL Central is far weaker this year than in 2011.
2. The Pirates seem to have conquered hurdles of winning in Miller Park in Milwaukee, and beating American League opponents, major roadblocks to success in previous seasons.
3. The rotation and bullpen appear stronger than even the incredible start from the 2011 staff. My man SP James McDonald is emerging as a potential top-of-rotation arm, GM Neal Huntington’s big offseason acquisition A.J. Burnett has rejuvinated his career and won 7 in a row, and nearly every arm on the team has met or exceeded expectations.
4. 3B Pedro Alvarez- the lynchpin of the offense- appears to finally be rounding into form, and not just his waistline this time. His OPS is creeping ever closer to .800, and the former 1st round pick is already among the league leaders in HR.
5. CF Andrew McCutchen is having his finest season ever, and would be among a small pool of MVP candidates if the season ended today. Fresh off a huge contract extension, the dreadlocked CF is batting an insane .346 with 12 HR, and a .979 OPS! Ballin’.
Scenario 2: No, the Pirates will NOT finish above .500, and could end up quite a bit below it
1. While the Milwaukee Brewers and St. Louis Cardinals may have regressed, the 1st place Cincinnati Reds have improved, and at least on paper, are superior to the Pirates. Fans can’t afford to overlook the Cardinals either. In typical St. Louis fashion, players have emerged to replace lost production, and the Redbirds are only 2 games behind the Pirates, with a towering +58 run differential. They won’t linger around .500 for long.
2. Despite their performance to date, the rotation has its share of concerns. Huntington’s other offseason SP addition- former Oriole Erik Bedard- hasn’t been nearly as effective since an injury on May 9th, and has been plagued by them throughout his productive but abridged career. A.J. Burnett certainly started hotter than in years previous, but has shown consistent declines over the latter halves of seasons. SP Kevin Correia looks more or less as fungible as he did in 2011, while the Pirates are badly missing repeat performances from SP Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton. Both had breakout seasons last year, but Karstens has been shelved with a shoulder injury since mid-April, while Morton just underwent Tommy John surgery, and is likely lost for the season.
The Pirates are currently relying on SP Brad Lincoln to hold down the 5th spot, but his ERA has risen nearly 3 runs since moving back into the rotation from the bullpen, and appears to be far from the pitcher the Pirates hoped when they selected him 4th overall in 2006.
3. Beyond McCutchen (.979 OPS) and a possibly-rejuvenating Alvarez (.763), the Pirates’ offense is absolutely abysmal. Prior to the team’s recent hot streak, it was comparable to the worst offenses in MLB history. The Pirates are still among the bottom 2-3 teams in the league in every major offensive category. Outside of Josh Harrison (.745 OPS) and Garrett Jones (.741), the Pirates don’t have ANY other hitters above a .700 OPS. That’s almost impossible.
If baseball’s season were shortened like any other sport, the Pirates might be able to get away with this dysfunctional offense. But 162 games has a way of exposing all of a team’s weaknesses. It’s more than likely the pitching staff will begin to labor under the constant yoke of miniscule run support.
4. While GM Huntington’s offseason addition of Burnett has been excellent, his ill-advised free agent signings of C Rod Barajas (1 year, $4MM + $3.5MM club option) and SS Clint Barmes (2 years, $11MM) have greatly hindered the team, despite the mandatory flowery praise given to these declining veterans on a nightly basis by the ROOT Sports broadcast team. Both players are below replacement level production-wise, yet the Pirates have committed so much money to them that it’s unlikely we’ll see them benched any time soon.
5. Like 2011, Huntington will find himself hampered by a lack of options at the trade deadline. He’ll obviously be unwilling to trade any of the Pirates’ premier prospects like SP Gerrit Cole or Jameson Taillon, and probably won’t deal MLB commodities like CL Joel Hanrahan or OF Garrett Jones, for fear of it hurting the club’s current W/L record. Not only is the team desperately trying to finish above .500 (despite public management statements to the contrary, alleging they focus only on whether or not they make the playoffs), but Huntington finds himself trying to justify his continued existence as GM, as the Pirates have yet to extend him beyond this season.
So, barring another Derrek Lee-esque acquisition, it’s unlikely the Pirates will be able to add a premiere bat or arm to bolster their stretch run. Their AA and AAA levels are simply too devoid of prospects to have the ammunition to do it.
This author would absolutely love to be wrong, but at this point, I believe Scenario 2 is more likely. The pitching staff is suprisingly good, but will eventually regress at least somewhat towards the mean. Unfortunately, the offense is basically as bad as they’re currently showing. This lack of run production will hinder the team, and cause the Pirates to sink below .500 by season’s end. My predicted order of finish right now is:
1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Cincinnati Reds
3. Milwaukee Brewers
4. Pittsburgh Pirates
5. Houston Astros
6. Chicago Cubs
Thanks for reading.