Pirates winning games, not necessarily making progress
On June 8, 2011, the Pittsburgh Pirates faced off against the Arizona Diamondbacks at PNC Park. Paul Maholm was on the hill for the Bucs. Zach Duke, who was making his first appearance against his former mates, would take the ball for the D-Backs. The Pirates scraped across a run in the third inning on a sacrifice fly by Andrew McCutchen. That 1-0 lead held up until the eighth, when Steven Drew lined a game-tying single through the middle. The game remained knotted up after nine, and the two teams moved into extra innings. In the top of the 10th, Drew again brought home a run with a single to center. However, the Pirates bounced back in the bottom of the inning. McCutchen roped a one-out double down the right field line, and Neil Walker’s single plated McCutchen and tied the game. The game crept deeper into the night. McCutchen led off the bottom of the 12th inning, and worked the count full. On the 3-2 pitch, Diamondbacks reliever Zach Kroenke hung a slider. McCutchen lifted it high and deep down the left field line and into the bleachers for a game-winning home run. The victory lifted the Pirates to a .500 record at 30-30. The Bucs have continued playing .500 ball over the past two weeks, and currently sit at 37-37 on June 23. It is the latest point in a season that the team has been at .500 since they were 67-67 on September 1, 1999. The 2010 Pirates did not reach 37 wins until August 3, when they were 37-69.
Obviously, the 2011 Pirates have been more enjoyable to follow than the 2010 version. The pitching staff has gone from one of the worst in baseball to legitimately above average. However, being easier to watch and hanging around .500 does not necessarily mean the team is making progress. Let’s take a look at the players who have contributed the most to the improved play so far this year.
As you can see, most of these key players are pitchers. McCutchen is the only position player clearly having a good season. Walker’s numbers are above that of the league average second baseman, but he is not performing nearly as well as he did in his rookie season. Snyder and Doumit are both producing much better offensive numbers than the typical catcher, but neither has been able to stay on the field. Both are currently on the disabled list indefinitely.
This year’s team is winning because of its pitching. The starting rotation has been strong for most of the year, and the bullpen has been just as effective. The Pirates have only used six starting pitchers all season, and Correia, Maholm, Morton, Karstens and James McDonald have been mostly productive and dependable since Ross Ohlendorf went on the disabled list in early April. In the pen, Hanrahan has been downright nasty, one of the top two or three closers in all of baseball. McCutchen, Resop and Veras have been solid for the most part, filling in for the injured Evan Meek. A few other relievers, such as Daniel Moskos and Tony Watson, have also pitched well in smaller samples.
Personally, I am most interested in what all of this means for the future of the team. Despite the improved play in 2011, I do not expect the Pirates to contend this year. I anticipate a final win total somewhere in the mid 70’s. Maybe the team will catch a few breaks and squeak out a winning record. Consequently, I find it difficult to get excited about a player who is performing well if I do not expect that player to be a building block for the next couple of seasons. And when I look at that list of players leading the 2011 Pirates, I do not see many long-term building blocks.
McCutchen is the biggest exception. He is developing into a legitimate superstar in front of our eyes, and there may be even more untapped potential inside him. He will be a cornerstone player for this franchise over the next several years. But after McCutchen, how many players on this list are you comfortable penciling in as a significant 2013 contributor? Snyder and Doumit will be on the wrong side of 30 and both will likely be gone after this season. Maholm is also unlikely to still be with the club. Correia is only signed through next year, and I can’t see him continuing to produce the way he has so far in 2011. Karstens has had a great season and is under team control through 2013, but I am not convinced that he can keep this up. Hanrahan has been lights out and the Pirates control his rights through 2013, but I find it hard to believe that he will make it to free agency with the Pirates. When you consider the year-to-year unpredictability of reliever performance and the high trade value of shutdown closers, I have to believe Neal Huntington will deal Hanrahan at some point in the near future. Finally, it is very difficult to predict future performance of non-elite relievers, so I will throw out the other relievers on this list.
That essentially leaves us with McCutchen, Walker, Morton and possibly Hanrahan as long-term contributors. It would probably be fair to throw McDonald into that conversation as well, if we treat his first four starts like his own personal spring training. Since he allowed eight runs in three innings on April 21 in Florida, McDonald has put up a 3.25 ERA over 61 innings in his last 11 starts. While it has been fun to watch the 2011 team play relatively competitive baseball, I am far from comfortable counting on only these players as a long-term core.
Of course, there are still reasons for optimism when looking at the future of this franchise. Alvarez, Tabata and Walker have all taken steps back from their rookie years, but that does not mean they will not rebound and make appropriate adjustments in the upcoming months and years. Each has had big league success at an early age, and it is pretty common for young players to show uneven developmental paths at this level. For an example, we only need to look back to McCutchen’s sophomore season in 2010. He went through a pretty rough stretch in the middle of the year, only to rebound and finish strong in September. Improvement is very rarely a linear process. Add in a legitimate crop of top of the rotation pitching prospects developing in the low minors and a few position players having encouraging seasons at Triple-A, and there are reasons to be positive.
I am generally an optimistic person, and I still feel that the Pirates are heading in the right direction overall. If the team could manage to win more games than they lose this year, that would be an extreme emotional relief for both the franchise and the fans. But the fact that they are playing relatively competitive ball has not convinced me that they have necessarily turned the corner as a franchise. There are still many unanswered questions about the future.