Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Don't Look for the Pirates to Fade Away This Year

Currently, the Cardinals are behind not only the Reds, but the Pirates as well. Despite leading the NL in runs scored, the Cardinals find themselves in third place. There is still time to get it turned around, and the Cardinals were in a bigger hole last year. However, the Reds and Pirates have pretty good teams themselves. With the extra wild card, it's possible that three teams could make the playoffs from the NL Central.

The Reds have been on a roll lately, even without Joey Votto, who is injured. Most people expected the Reds to be good this year. Expectations for the Pirates weren't as high, I was thinking they would be a .500 team this year. Last year, the Pirates were 53-47 after 100 games and in first place. On July 26th, the Pirates lost to the Braves in a controversial call at home plate. The umpire called the Braves Julio Lugo safe, even though he was clearly out. The Pirates went in a tailspin after that game, and lost 10 in a row soon after. They went 19-42 after that game, and finished the year 72-90 in fourth place.

The Pirates pitching let them down in the second half last year. Besides that, Andrew McCutchen went in a big slump and finished with a .259 average. McCutchen was batting over .290 at the All Star break in 2011. Neil Walker also went in a slump. Trade deadline acquisitions Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick did not work out last year. The Pirates also had a young, inexperienced team.

This year, I wouldn't expect the same outcome. McCutchen is the frontrunner for NL MVP, and is currently batting .368. He is a five tool player and the best player Pittsburgh's had since Barry Bonds. This is a deeper team, with better starting pitching. Here's five reasons why the Pirates aren't going away.

1) The Pirates have a better rotation this year

James McDonald is starting to live up to his potential. In his second full year as a starter, McDonald is 10-5 with a 3.38 ERA. The Yankees pretty much gave AJ Burnett to the Pirates, and ate most of the money he was owed. Burnett has turned it around this year after posting ERA's above 5 the last two years. Burnett has gone 12-3 with a 3.52 ERA with the Bucs. The Pirates have also added two lefties to the rotation this year, Erik Bedard, and recently acquired Wandy Rodriguez. Rodriguez has had a ERA under 3.60 since 2008, and was the last remaining member of the 2005 NL Champion Astros at the time of his trade. Kevin Correia made the All Star team last year, and was bumped from the rotation to make room for Rodriguez. In the next year or two, the Pirates have two highly rated pitching prospects who should make their debut in Gerrit Cole and James Taillon.

2) The Pirates have a good bullpen

Joel Hanrahan has been a dominant closer the last couple of seasons. He's always had good stuff, but wasn't able to harness it until recently. He currently leads the National League with 31 saves, and has a 2.18 ERA. The Pirates are also proof that you don't have to spend a lot of money to have a good bullpen. Jason Grilli was in the minors last year, when the Pirates traded for him. He has been lights out this year. Jared Hughes came up through the system, and has an ERA below 2 right now.

3) McCutchen is having a great year

The last couple of months in 2011 were not a good indicator of what kind of player McCutchen is. Despite his second half struggles, McCutchen's on base pct. and slugging pct. were around his career norms. He also set a career high for home runs and RBIs in 2011. He is a five tool player who can do it all. He plays great defense, steals bases, has a good arm, hits for average and power. He is only 25 and just entering his prime. This year, he leads the National League in batting average and slugging percentage. He is also third in home runs with 22, and sixth in RBIs with 66.

4) There is a offense besides McCutchen this year

Neil Walker started off slow this year, but is starting to pick it up. He raised his average to .291 and has started to hit for more power. He is a Pittsburgh native, and he was only 7 years old the last time the Pirates made the playoffs. Pedro Alvarez has improved upon a miserable season last year. He still isn't hitting for average, but is second on the team with 21 home runs and 58 RBIs. For a team that gave up on Aramis Ramirez and Jose Bautista, the Pirates have been patient with Alvarez.

The Pirates are still weak at catcher, shortstop, and right field. Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee have been platooning at first base, and they have given them average production. Jose Tabata was sent to the minors earlier this month after struggling this year. Top outfield prospect Sterling Marte was just called up last week and hit a home run in his first at bat. He should be a big help for the Pirates, and lessens their need to trade for an outfielder.

5) Clint Hurdle has changed the culture in Pittsburgh

The Pirates haven't had a winning season in 20 years, which was the last time they made the playoffs. Hurdle vowed to change the attitude in Pittsburgh after taking the job before the 2011 season. Last year, they started out well but collapsed. With more experience and a deeper roster, I wouldn't expect that to happen again. He has worked well with the younger players, and they have played smarter baseball than they have in the past. Hurdle was able to lead a turnaround with a young group of players in Colorado during the 2007 season, and he's trying to do the same here in Pittsburgh. I certainly respect the way the Pirates play and they act way more professional than the punks from Cincinnati. There isn't any jerks like Johnny Cueto, Brandon Phillips, Aroldis Chapman, and Dusty Baker on the Pirates.

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