At the start of the 2011 season, I did my annual “Things to Watch For” article, where I point out a certain number of things to watch for in the upcoming season. The number always coincides with the consecutive losing streak, and is always with the theme that these are the things to watch, rather than watching the next consecutive losing season.
We’ve talked a lot about what a surprise this year is. To really illustrate how surprising this year has been, take a look at the opening lines from this year’s version of the article:
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.
First of all, it can’t be stressed enough how good the pitching staff has been this year. Prior to the season there were questions on WHEN the Pirates would be bringing up the mass quantity of pitching prospects from the upper levels. Now, the Pirates are seeing a lot of struggles from their pitching prospects in the upper levels, and it doesn’t even matter, because there’s not a spot in the rotation for anyone to take.
One thing I always notice in covering prospects is the idea that the Pirates need a perfect storm in order to compete. We talk about how Jameson Taillon and Gerrit Cole could arrive in June 2013. We talk about Starling Marte possibly arriving in 2012, along with Tony Sanchez, and maybe even a few other guys in the upper levels. We talk so much about the estimated arrivals that people start to think that the Pirates can’t possibly compete unless all of these prospects are in the majors. To illustrate this thinking, take a look at my list of 19 things from the pre-season, and keep in mind that the expectations were extremely low, even with all of these things happening.
19. Will the catchers stay healthy and be productive?
They were productive, but only when they were healthy. The catching situation is held together with chicken wire and duct tape right now. The two catchers on the roster are Michael McKenry, acquired from the Boston Red Sox for a player to be named later, and Eric Fryer, who played in high-A ball the entire 2010 season. And they’re not doing that bad, when you consider that neither was a top 4-5 Major League catching option prior to the season.
18. Will Chris Resop be this year’s Evan Meek?
Resop has been good, but he hasn’t exactly been lights out like Meek was in 2010. Then again, Meek has been injured most of the year in 2011. I feel that Resop’s criticism is often of “what have you done for me lately” fashion. He also only draws attention when he has a bad outing. Typical life of a reliever I guess.
17. Can Kevin Correia return to 2009 form?
Yes, although he’s been shaky in recent starts. However, he’s definitely not the 2010 version.
16. How consistent will Paul Maholm be?
Very consistent for Maholm. It’s worth noting that he fell apart in mid-July last year, and had a rough final two and a half months. But for now, he’s looking good.
15. Can Lyle Overbay follow up on his Spring Training success?
Not at all. Overbay has been horrible at the plate, and his defense hasn’t been as advertised on the field.
14. Are Ross Ohlendorf‘s struggles a sign of things to come?
Ohlendorf has been injured all year, and the Pirates haven’t really missed him. He was their best pitcher the last two years, statistically, and now there’s questions on whether he should go to the bullpen when he eventually returns.
13. Can Joel Hanrahan close?
It’s funny that this was a question at the start of the year. It also speaks a lot about the closer role. It’s really all about comfort, at least in the eyes of the fans. There were a lot of questions about Hanrahan, especially since he lost the closer’s role in 2009 with Washington. Now, he’s arguably one of the best in the league.
12. Are there any players on the 40-man who can be the next Neil Walker?
#FreeAlexPresley? We’ll see.
11. Will Charlie Morton finally put it all together?
I wouldn’t give a definitive “yes” to this, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that Morton has seen a massive turnaround since last season.
10. Will a long term outfielder emerge from AAA?
Andrew Lambo has taken a huge step back, getting demoted to AA. Gorkys Hernandez is hitting well, especially since the start of June, but is prone to some big mental mistakes on the base paths, and that’s not something that’s new in 2011. Maybe Alex Presley is the answer. At any rate, it looks like Starling Marte will be the long term answer.
9. Will a long term shortstop option emerge?
Chase d’Arnaud just got the call, and Jordy Mercer has been performing well lately (although he just went down last night after getting hit in the hand with a pitch). However, Ronny Cedeno’s defense has been great this year. His bat has been inconsistent, with some nice highs, and some really ugly lows. That said, the expectation at the start of the year was that Cedeno would be out of the role by this point.
8. The Matt Diaz/Garrett Jones platoon
This platoon has been horrible. Jones has played well, but Diaz hasn’t played up to expectations at all.
7. Can James McDonald repeat his 2010 success?
Some will point to McDonald’s season numbers and say “no”. The problem with looking at the overall results is that McDonald struggled at the beginning of the year. After his first four starts, he’s posted a 2.96 ERA. His stuff hasn’t been pretty, and he’s struggled with control in June, but the results have been there.
6. The 2009 Prep Pitchers
Zack Dodson has been injured since early May. Zack Von Rosenberg has been getting hammered in West Virginia. Colton Cain is putting up some strong numbers, although when I saw him the other night he didn’t have his best stuff, and looked tired.
5. Can the injured prospects bounce back?
Starling Marte has really bounced back, with a great season in AA. Brock Holt is also having a good year at the plate. Sanchez has been a disappointment this year, especially with his lack of power.
4. The 2010 Altoona Rotiation
The results here haven’t been good, as we outlined a few week ago. Rudy Owens has struggled in AAA. Justin Wilson has good numbers, but still struggles with his control. Jeff Locke remains in Altoona, and has been a bit inconsistent there. Bryan Morris has moved to the bullpen full time.
3. Can Andrew McCutchen take his game to the next level this year?
The offense has been bad this year, but McCutchen has been the lone bright spot. There’s an argument to be made that he’s turning in to a star.
2. How will Pedro Alvarez/Jose Tabata/Neil Walker do in their first full season?
This was considered one of the keys to the Pirates succeeding, and the results have been disappointing. Alvarez struggled, and is now injured (although he’s on his way back). Tabata and Walker have had their moments, but they’ve mostly struggled in their first full seasons.
1. The debut of Jameson Taillon/Stetson Allie/Luis Heredia
Taillon has lived up to the hype in West Virginia. Allie has struggled with his control in State College. Heredia hasn’t pitched much, but has had good results so far in a handful of innings, and looked good when I saw him in Spring Training.
Overall, the offense hasn’t played as expected, the pitching has exceeded expectations, and a lot of the prospects in the upper levels that were expected to provide immediate help have struggled. If I would have told you this prior to the season, you would have thought “100 loss season”, and I probably would have agreed. We could go over why the Pirates are considered contenders right now, but the explanation is simple: the pitching has been tremendous, the offense has struggled, but has scored enough to win, and the key contributors to the team have managed to stay healthy. Instead, why don’t we go over the Perfect Storm logic that surrounded the idea of future success by the Pirates heading in to the year.
The big issue was that the Pirates lost for so many years in a row that it became impossible to see them ever winning. They never really showed the commitment to the farm system that we’re seeing now, but they did have prospects, and not all of those prospects lived up to their hype (which is normal with prospects, and why you can’t just be content with limited options at each position in the system). The Pirates even had good players, like Jason Bay and Brian Giles, and lost even with them on the roster.
I believe this left Pirates fans scarred. The feeling about top prospects was doom and gloom. Mention a top prospect, get a Chad Hermansen reference. Watch that top prospect succeed, and point to how the team still lost with guys like Giles and Bay leading the team.
The other problem with the offense was that the team was so bad, it made certain players look better than they were. Take Freddy Sanchez, for example. Yes, he won the batting title one year. But for his career, he’s a .297 hitter. In fact, outside of the batting title year, he only hit over .300 one other time, and that was the following year, when he hit for a .304 average. He didn’t draw a lot of walks, and he didn’t hit for power. His defense was good at second base. He was one of the best players on the team, but that didn’t make him a similar talent to Giles and Bay. Sanchez was more a support player, and not a guy you wanted leading your team.
The problem was, Sanchez was leading the team. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a good player, but he’s not a guy you want carrying your lineup. The problem was, Pirates fans associated “best player on the team” with “player you want leading your team”, and started suggesting that even if the Pirates build up an offense in the future, it was proven to fail. Forget the potential of Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata. We already saw an offense lose when led by Bay, Nate McLouth, Xavier Nady, and Sanchez. Never mind that McLouth and Nady look like one hit wonders, and Sanchez is more a support guy, while McCutchen, Alvarez, Walker, and Tabata all have the potential to be well above average players at their positions.
So that covers the offense, but what about the pitching staff? The thought here was that any pitching prospect would have Tommy John surgery (and that’s still the thought, even though the Pirates haven’t had anyone go down with Tommy John surgery the last few years, outside of Donald Veal ad Jimmy Barthmaier, who both came up through different farm systems). The thought was that any pitcher with success in the minors would be another Zack Duke or Ian Snell. The thought was that if a pitcher had success in the majors, they would fall off the next season.
The last part is justified, as the Pirates went through a freakishly long spell where they didn’t see consistent year to year performances from their top pitchers. However, that was more due to those successful pitchers pitching above their heads one year, and falling back to earth the next year (and that’s a concern I have with the pitching staff this year). As for the first two, there’s no valid reason to think that every pitcher who throws on a Pirates jersey is destined to either go down with a career altering injury, or end up like Zack Duke.
Finally, there’s a huge misconception with building through the farm system. It’s the “window to compete” theory. The idea is that you take several years to build up a team, and when that team finally comes together, you have a window of 2-3 years to compete, before those players leave for free agency. Successful teams shouldn’t have a window. They should have a farm system that is always stocked, ready to offer up replacements should a player leave.
That’s the Perfect Storm theory. It was the idea that the young offense we saw in 2010 wouldn’t be enough, since we saw the team lose with Bay, McLouth, Sanchez, and Nady. It’s the irrational theory that pitchers are doomed to failure when they sign with the Pirates, and even if they do have success, it will be limited to one year. On top of all of that, it’s the misguided notion that, even if the team was competitive, they’d only have two years to compete.
What we’re seeing this year is that pitching is extremely important. If the 2008 offense had some pitching, they might have been a competitive group. And I’m not talking about adding one pitcher to a losing team at the trade deadline. I’m talking about a rotation full of guys who can give you a chance to win every night. So even if the upside of Alvarez/McCutchen/Walker/Tabata matches the 2008 group, at least this group will have the pitching to support them. As for the future of the pitching staff, there’s no valid reason to think that pitchers are doomed from the start if they’re in the Pirates’ organization. And when the time comes for the Pirates to be competitive, there should be no window. Ideally, the Pirates should have guys ready to take over in the minors, so that when they eventually lose Andrew McCutchen (just like the Rays did with Carl Crawford, and just like the Twins did with Torii Hunter), they’ll be able to bounce back and compete, taking maybe one year to reload, rather than another 5-6 years to totally build up their system.
The Pirates don’t need a perfect storm in order to compete. That’s just the thought process that comes after years of being beaten down with losses. In reality, the Pirates can win, even when things go wrong, as we’re seeing this year. Ideally for the long term we want the young hitters to be successful, and some of the young pitchers in the farm system to come up and anchor the rotation for years. But the idea that all of that has to happen at once in order to give the Pirates a window of two years to compete is false.