The Pittsburgh Pirates wrapped their 2011 regular season up last night, finishing with a loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, and dropping to a 72-90 record. The record marked their 19th consecutive losing season in a row, which was frustrating for a lot of Pirates fans after the team reached first place in the division as late as mid-July. The season ultimately goes down as a loss in the record books, but it offers an encouraging sign for the near future.
It’s hard to deny that progress was made in 2011. The Pirates improved by 15 games from 2010 to 2011. It wasn’t exactly hard to improve on a 57 win season, but the improvement was significant. We’re not talking about jumping up to 60 wins. We’re talking about 15 games. Coming in to the season, there were questions about whether the Pirates would lose 100 games. A 15 game improvement in the record books would have been seen as a big sign of improvement.
Things changed around mid-season. The Pirates were above .500, and in first place, prior to the Milwaukee Brewers going on a run and pulling away from the rest of the pack in a weak NL Central race. The expectations went from “get closer to 81 wins” to “get closer to the playoffs”. For the first time in years, the Pirates became buyers at the deadline, adding Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick. However, the team immediately fell apart, losing ten games in a row in early August, which eventually led to their next losing season.
The Pirates have shown an improvement in their record in the past during this losing streak, but that obviously hasn’t led to a winning season. They improved by ten games from 2001 to 2002. There was the Freak Show in 1997, where the Pirates won 79 games. In each case the losing continued, which might make people feel that this current improvement means nothing.
Looking deeper than the record, we can see that this isn’t the case. The Pirates came in to the 2011 season with one of the worst pitching staffs in the league in 2010. Following the 2011 season they still lack a top of the rotation guy, but Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens both took big steps forward, James McDonald put up a strong season, and Brad Lincoln showed some positive signs at the end of the year. Heading in to the 2010-2011 off-season, it looked like the Pirates had four rotation spots that needed to be filled. Heading in to this off-season, it looks like only one rotation spot needs to be filled.
Then there’s the position players. The biggest improvement came from Andrew McCutchen, who faded after the All-Star break, but looked to be on the verge of becoming a star player throughout most of the season. McCutchen is only 24, and perhaps gave us a glimpse of what could be coming in the future with his pre-break performance, featuring a .291 average and an .894 OPS, along with some strong center field defense.
The offense really took the place of the pitching as the biggest problem heading in to the off-season. McCutchen had a strong year, but fell off in the final two months. Jose Tabata and Neil Walker both showed flashes of solid hitting, but a lack of consistency led to average numbers. Pedro Alvarez really struggled, taking a big step back offensively, which was the biggest blow to the team this year. However, throughout all of this, the Pirates saw Alex Presley emerge with a .298 average and an .804 OPS.
Defensively the Pirates also saw a lot of good strides. Andrew McCutchen had the 7th best UZR/150 out of qualified center fielders in the majors. Ronny Cedeno stepped up with a 6.4 UZR/150, and his defensive work this year should be enough to warrant his $3 M option being picked up in 2012. Michael McKenry was a surprise addition in the middle of the year, with the surprise coming from his defense behind the plate. Neil Walker also was encouraging, with a -2.2 UZR/150 at second base, which is encouraging only because this was his first full season at the position. Contending teams usually have strong defense, and the Pirates were getting strong defense from some of the hardest positions to fill defensively.
Think about where the Pirates were this time last year, and where they are now. They’re not contenders yet, but they are a lot closer. The rotation went from needing pretty much an entire rotation, to needing a leader of the rotation (with Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon both possibilities to join the club by June 2013). The offense is currently built around five young players (McCutchen, Alvarez, Tabata, Walker, and Presley). Pedro Alvarez had a major down year, and the Pirates have seen other inconsistencies, but what happens when these young players start playing with consistency? The defense looks sharp, and should only improve with more experience for Walker at second, and an outfield of McCutchen, Tabata, and Presley to start the 2012 season.
What seems strange to me is that a lot of people want to focus on the second half, specifically the final two months, as if the first four months didn’t count. The Pirates exceeded expectations in a big way in the first four months of the season, then totally fell apart in the final two months. Credit will be given to those final months, and people will forget about the first four months in a “glass is half empty” approach. When this approach is taken, it’s impossible to see the Pirates as a team that is not only close to a winning season, but close to contending.
That’s exactly where the Pirates are right now. Heading in to the 2011-2012 off-season, they’re a team that is close to contending. It might sound like a ridiculous statement to some, and others may find it reasonable when you consider that the team was contending for two thirds of the season this year. But think about the makeup of the team. Think about the two ace prospects in the minors that will probably each finish the season at the AA level or higher. If just one of them lives up to the hype, that will be a big boost to the rotation, starting in mid-2013. Think about where the offense could be if Pedro Alvarez realizes his potential. Granted we’re supposed to be writing Alvarez off as a bust, but what’s stopping him from pulling a Charlie Morton and going from a disaster of a season one year, to a solid year the next?
The Pirates have all the pieces to contend in the next year or two. They have the top of the rotation pitching prospects. They just need them to iron out their game, and progress through the upper levels. They have the middle of the order power hitter to anchor the lineup. They just need him to get back on track (Side note: a lot of people suggest winter ball, but I’ve always felt that going to API again would be the best approach for Alvarez). Even without Alvarez, they have a guy who looks like a star in the making in Andrew McCutchen, and it might not be a coincidence that the team’s downward spiral came at the same time as McCutchen’s slump.
Overall if you throw in some strong defense, some rising prospects, the next Alex Presley/Neil Walker surprise player, and the already existing good, young players on the roster like Morton, McDonald, Walker, Tabata, and Presley, and you’ve got a very promising team. The 2011 season may have ended with a losing record, but the Pirates took a nice step forward. The next step could put them above .500, and in contention for the NL Central, and not just until the end of July this time.