This is part one of a three part 2011 season preview. The other two parts are below:
1. 19 Things to Watch For in 2011
In my first year running this site, I decided to make a play on the losing streak, looking at 17 things to watch for in 2009, besides the eventual 17th losing season in a row. I continued that tradition last year, upping the number to 18. This year, unfortunately, we’re up to 19. The idea that the Pirates will go from a 105 loss team to an 82+ win team is far fetched, especially with the current pitching staff. That doesn’t mean we won’t see improvements.
Seeing improvements from a 105 loss season is very easy to do. The biggest question this year is whether the team will show meaningful improvements. Will we start to see that the team is going in the right direction? Will the right prospects step up? Who will be the surprises this year, and who will be the disappointments? Will the young offensive players continue their early success? These are some of the questions that we cover in this year’s preview of the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates’ season.
19. Will the catchers stay healthy and be productive?
The Pirates have two catchers making a combined $10.95 M, although they’re receiving $3 M from Arizona for Chris Snyder, so the total amount comes out to $7.95 M. That’s still a lot of money to be spending on two players who are far from a guarantee, and who both are big injury risks.
Chris Snyder has already caught the injury bug this year, starting off the season on the 15-day disabled list with a back injury. The injury shouldn’t keep him out long, although it does put Ryan Doumit in the starting lineup. Snyder is better than Doumit defensively, and neither player has been strong with the bat. At his best, Snyder is about a .775 OPS guy. Meanwhile, Doumit had a strong year in 2008, but has yet to repeat those numbers. His primary value comes with the bat, although the bat has been pretty disappointing the last two years.
For the money that they’re spending, the Pirates need one of these two catchers to step up. They either need Snyder to get healthy, play strong defense, and hit for a .775 OPS, or Doumit to stay healthy, return to his 2008 hitting form, and play respectable defense.
18. Will Chris Resop be this year’s Evan Meek?
In 2009, Evan Meek had a decent season, with a 3.45 ERA in 47 innings, along with an 8.0 K/9 and a 5.6 BB/9 ratio. Heading in to the 2010 season he was viewed as a potential late inning reliever, although the Pirates brought in some options that ended up putting him in a low pressure role. Meek responded by putting up a 2.14 ERA in 80 innings in 2010, along with a 7.9 K/9 and a much improved 3.5 BB/9 ratio.
After being claimed off of waivers in 2010, Chris Resop had a 1.89 ERA in 19 innings with the Pirates, along with an 11.4 K/9 and a 4.7 BB/9 ratio. Like Meek, Resop comes in to the year with questions about whether he could take the next step and be a back of the bullpen option. Also like Meek, there is a little bit of caution being exercised over the legitimacy of Resop’s numbers. It would be a big boost for the Pirates if Resop did take that jump to the next level this year, and emerge as a late inning relief option.
17. Can Kevin Correia return to 2009 form?
Kevin Correia had a breakout season in 2009, with a 3.91 ERA in 198 innings, along with a 6.5 K/9 and a 2.9 BB/9 ratio. He started off the 2010 season with similar numbers, but in May 2010 his brother died in a tragic accident. After the accident, Correia’s numbers took a free fall, and he never bounced back for the remainder of the season. He ended up with a 5.40 ERA in 145 innings, along with a 7.1 K/9 and a 4.0 BB/9 ratio. The Pirates gave him a two year, $8 M deal this year, hoping that he could return to that 2009 form.
16. How consistent will Paul Maholm be?
Paul Maholm has been a bit of a mixed bag the last few years. In 2008 he had a good season, with a 3.71 ERA, despite a poor start to the season in the first month in a half. Maholm had a 5.11 ERA after his first ten starts, spread across 61.2 innings. From that point forward he finished the season on a strong run, with a 3.11 ERA in 144.2 innings. In 2009 he was inconsistent all year. He had two months with an ERA close to 3.00 (April and September), two months with an ERA close to 4.50 (May and August), and two months with an ERA over 5.50 (June and July). In 2010 he had a 4.03 ERA on the season, following his July 18th start against Houston. In his final 13 starts following that, he put up a 6.81 ERA in 71.1 innings.
Maholm has been almost a lock for 31-32 starts the last three seasons. The Pirates just need him to be consistent in those starts in order to get the maximum value out of him.
15. Can Lyle Overbay follow up on his Spring Training success?
Lyle Overbay is strong defensively at first base, but he’s coming off a poor year at the plate, which saw him hit for a .243/.329/.433 line in 534 at-bats. That raised some questions as to why the Pirates gave him a $5 M deal to be the everyday first baseman. This Spring, Overbay was on fire at the plate. Spring Training stats are hardly a good indicator of regular season success, so we can’t assume that we will see the same performance out of Overbay the rest of the 2011 season. However, if he can have a season similar to his 2009 season, when he hit for a .265 average with an .838 OPS, he might be able to give the offense a boost behind the top young hitters that make up the top of the lineup.
14. Are Ross Ohlendorf’s struggles a sign of things to come?
Ohlendorf had a horrible Spring, and I pointed out last week why his struggles should be a concern. In short, Ohlendorf has been lucky the last two years, and if he doesn’t do something to cut down on his fly ball rate (mainly, if he doesn’t stop trying to overpower the ball), he could find himself with a big regression this year, and possibly out of the rotation by the end of the season.
13. Can Joel Hanrahan close?
Joel Hanrahan had an amazing season last year, with a 3.62 ERA in 69.2 innings, along with a 12.9 K/9 and a 3.4 BB/9 ratio. At the end of the season he was moved in to the closer’s role, and struggling a bit, with a 4.13 ERA and two blown saves in eight attempts. That wouldn’t be a concern, except that he struggled as the closer with Washington in 2009, with a 7.71 ERA in 32.2 innings, which was enough to get him removed from the closer’s role. The Pirates have Evan Meek as a backup in case Hanrahan struggles, but it would be nice to see Hanrahan have success in the role, which would leave Meek as a strong set-up man.
12. Are there any players on the 40-man who can be the next Neil Walker?
Last year, Neil Walker came in to the season looking like a busted prospect, with no future outside of a utility infielder. One year later he’s the second baseman of the future, all due to a massive rebound season in Indianapolis. If I had to pick one candidate on the 40-man roster to be the Neil Walker of 2011, it would be Gorkys Hernandez. Hernandez is already strong defensively, and has some speed. Also, like Walker, Hernandez started hitting in the final months of his previous season, which largely went unnoticed, since it was buried in his poor overall stat lines. This isn’t guaranteeing that Hernandez turns things around, but he’s young enough, talented enough, and looked to be turning the corner last year in Altoona, before breaking his finger and ending his season.
11. Will Charlie Morton finally put it all together?
The big story this Spring has been the performance of Charlie Morton. A lot of talk has focused around his sinker, which is being credited to a new grip, taught to him by Michael Crotta. The Pirates lack pitching, and there are little to no expectations on Morton to contribute to the team long term. It would be a big boost for the team if he carried his Spring success over to the 2011 season and finally put things together, which would allow him to be a fixture in the rotation for at least three more years after the 2011 season.
10. Will a long term outfielder emerge from AAA?
The Pirates have three outfield prospects in AAA to start the 2011 season, and a long term opening in right field in the majors. None of the outfielders in AAA (Andrew Lambo, Gorkys Hernandez, and Alex Presley) really stand out as guarantees to make the majors, although each has a shot at being a starter. I wrote about the three a few weeks ago. If I had to pick one who has the best chance of making the majors this year as a starter, it would be Lambo.
9. Will a long term shortstop option emerge?
Just like the outfield, the Pirates have a spot open for the long term at shortstop, and while they have a few options in the upper levels, they don’t have anyone who has stepped up to claim the role. Ronny Cedeno will start off the 2011 season as the starter, although he could be on a short leash if his inconsistent play continues. He also has an affordable option for the 2012 season if he manages to have a good season at the position.
Behind Cedeno, the Pirates have Rule 5 pick Josh Rodriguez, who looks like a potential utility player more than a starter. They also have Pedro Ciriaco in AAA. Ciriaco is possibly the best defensive option in the entire system at the position, and could be the leading candidate to take over for Cedeno if he does struggle again this year.
Prospect-wise, the Pirates have Chase D’Arnaud and Jordy Mercer. Both players are talented, although they’re each coming off a down year. D’Arnaud hit for power, got on base, and displayed good base running skills, but struggled hitting for average in 2010. Mercer hit for average, but struggled with his power and plate patience skills, making his average an empty one. Those two are the best options in the upper level to emerge as an all-around long term option at shortstop, although neither player is a guarantee.
8. The Matt Diaz/Garrett Jones platoon
The Pirates decided to platoon Garrett Jones and Matt Diaz this year in right field, after Jones demonstrated issues hitting left handers in 2010. If we look at their career platoon splits, and assume 700 combined plate appearances between the two players over the course of the 2011 season, at a 66%/33% split between Jones and Diaz respectively, we get the following output from the right field position:
700 PA, 641 AB, .300/.364/.508, 29 HR
That looks good in theory, although the reality is that Jones won’t see every at-bat against a right hander, and Diaz won’t see every at-bat against a left hander, so this is sort of the best case scenario for the platoon. Still, anything close to that would be huge, and would amount to very cheap production, as the combo of Jones and Diaz is costing the Pirates about $2.5 M.
7. Can James McDonald repeat his 2010 success?
James McDonald was the lone bright spot in the 2010 rotation, with a 3.52 ERA in 11 starts after joining the Pirates, along with an 8.6 K/9 and a 3.4 BB/9 ratio. The Pirates have seen far too often a story about a pitcher having a surprise season, then failing to repeat that success the following year. Looking at McDonald’s advanced statistics, that doesn’t seem to be likely to happen this time around. McDonald ended up with a 3.84 xFIP, which isn’t as good as his ERA, but is still strong. The big difference was that he had a very low 3.7% home run to fly ball ratio, with the average for starters being around 10%. McDonald should see that number bounce back, which should raise his ERA a bit. As long as he continues putting up the strong strikeout numbers, he should be fine for a nice repeat season.
6. The 2009 Prep Pitchers
The Pirates drafted a lot of prep pitchers in the 2009 draft, led by Zack Von Rosenberg, Colton Cain, and Zack Dodson. Those three, among others, will be moving to full season ball this year, which will give us a glimpse of why these pitchers all deserved over-slot deals. Those three all had success in the New York-Penn League in 2010, although they are still a long ways off from jumping up to the top of the prospect lists. It’s too early to make any definitive conclusions on any of the 2009 prep pitchers, and it would be ahead of schedule if any of them had a breakout season this year. At the same time, it would be a huge boost for the Pirates if one of those 2009 prep pitchers did surprise with an early breakout campaign.
5. Can the injured prospects bounce back?
Last year the Pirates saw a ton of injuries to their top prospects at the high-A level. Tony Sanchez, the catcher of the future, went down with a broken jaw after being hit in the face with a fastball. Brock Holt, a strong all-around middle infielder, went down with a knee injury, which forced him to undergo MCL surgery. Starling Marte, one of the most promising international prospects that has come through the system since Aramis Ramirez, was hit in the hand with a pitch, and had to have the hook of his hamate bone removed, a procedure which can limit a hitter’s power for at least a year.
All three players will make the jump to AA this year, despite missing a lot of time in 2010. Sanchez might be the most important of the three, as the catching options throughout the system are slim. He needs to work on improving his defense, which has the potential to be at a Gold Glove level in the majors one day. He also will face his first big test at the plate, as the jump to AA is the hardest for a hitter. Marte is a high upside prospect, who could end up starting in the Pittsburgh outfield one day. He will need to display the ability to hit for average at a higher level, which could be a problem for him since he has struggled with his walk and strikeout rates. Holt has hit in two of the most pitcher friendly leagues in the minors, so the big test for him will be rebounding from his knee injury, and making the successful jump to the AA level.
4. The 2010 Altoona Rotiation
Last year the Pirates saw their first big wave of prospects in the current rebuilding process, although the big impact was entirely hitters. This year, the biggest potential impact players look to be pitchers, specifically the players from the 2010 Altoona rotation. The most likely to make an impact this year will be Rudy Owens, who is slated to start the 2011 season in AAA, and might be the most polished of all four pitchers. Bryan Morris potentially has the most upside, although he will return to Altoona to start the 2011 season. If he gets off to a quick start, he could be in line for a short stay in Indianapolis, and a move to the majors by mid-season.
Justin Wilson and Jeff Locke are less likely to arrive this year. Wilson could be held back due to inconsistent control issues. He definitely has the stuff to pitch in the majors, but a lot of movement on his pitches makes them hard to control, and there are some outings from Wilson that can get ugly. Locke will start in Altoona again, and could move up quickly like Morris, although based on the 2010 season, I’d say Morris is more likely to move quickly.
3. Can Andrew McCutchen take his game to the next level this year?
Andrew McCutchen has put up impressive numbers in his first year and a half as a pro, with a very consistent .286/.365/.459 line in that time period. His defense has struggled a bit, partially due to his positioning, but also because he has a bit to work on. In each season, his WAR was 3.3, which is good, although it’s not to a star level yet. When you think about McCutchen, he was only 23 years old in 2010, and hit for a .286 average, with an .814 OPS and 16 homers in 570 at-bats.
The big question is whether he can take his game to the next level, going from a very good player, to a star. He has the potential to be one of the best all-around outfielders in the game, and to think he’s reached his peak performance is a mistake. There’s a lot more potential that could come from McCutchen. Rather than asking whether he can take his game to the next level, it’s more of a question of how soon he takes his game to the next level.
2. How will Pedro Alvarez/Jose Tabata/Neil Walker do in their first full season?
The Pirates got a big boost to their offense last year with the additions of Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata. Walker surprised everyone with his hitting, and statistically he rated as one of the top second basemen in the league last year. Tabata hit for an impressive .299/.346/.400 line, which is even more impressive when you consider he’s only 21 years old. Alvarez displayed his power, with 16 homers in 347 at-bats, and while he struggled some at the plate, he did manage to catch fire at the end of the season, with a .306/.355/.577 line and six homers in 111 at-bats in September and October.
There are questions for each player as they enter their first full season. Can Alvarez repeat his late season success? Can he play capable defense at third base? Was Walker a fluke, or was his hitting the real deal? Can he improve defensively at second? Will Tabata eventually hit for power? The Pirates could have a special offense with these three players and McCutchen providing production from the top half of the lineup.
1. The debut of Jameson Taillon/Stetson Allie/Luis Heredia
The big story last year was the addition of the three young, potentially top of the rotation, arms. The Pirates drafted Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, signing the combo for $8,750,000. They followed that up by signing Luis Heredia, the top Mexican pitching prospect, to a $2.6 M deal, which was a team record for an international signing.
All three pitchers will make their professional debuts at some point this season. Heredia should start in the GCL, while Taillon and Allie will eventually end up in West Virginia. The Pirates have some potential impact prospects who are closer to the majors, but no prospect has the potential impact that these three pitchers have. They could be the most important players for the future of the franchise, outside of the big four hitters in the majors.
Of course, you can see all three pitch by checking out the videos I uploaded from last week in Spring Training: