Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker celebrate - Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

As Neal Huntington tore down the Pirates’ major league roster over the past few years, I set my sights on 2011 as the year the team would “turn it around.” In other words, I expected the Bucs to crack .500 (or at least come close) with a young roster that had room to improve. By 2012, I hoped we would be competing for the playoffs. Whether this team has a chance to accomplish any of that is debatable. In this upcoming series of articles, I will determine how close the Pirates are to achieving this goal.

Tonight, Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Brad Lincoln will be on the field at PNC Park. Pedro Alvarez could join them any day. All of these players are having encouraging seasons, either in Indianapolis or Pittsburgh. On the flip side, Andy LaRoche, Lastings Milledge, Jeff Clement and Charlie Morton have all experienced disastrous years thus far at the major league level.

Some young pieces are falling into place. Some young pieces are simply falling out of the picture.  Will it be enough? How far are the Bucs from potentially competing for the postseason?

To answer these questions, I will compare the Pirates’ roster to the rosters of the eight 2009 playoff teams: the Yankees, Red Sox, Twins, Angels, Phillies, Cardinals, Dodgers and Rockies.

Let’s start with the offense. The Pirates have scored the fewest number of runs in baseball this year. They have the second lowest team wOBA, with only the Astros out-sucking the Bucs at the plate. Obviously, the team as a whole is poor with the stick. But we are not exactly interested in the overall team offense. We are attempting to determine how many additional pieces the team requires to compete. To do this, I placed each starting position player from last season’s playoff teams into the following offensive categories:

Elite > .385
Good .366 – .385
Above avg .346 – .365
Avg .331 – .345
Below avg .316 – .330
Poor .291 – .315
Useless < .291

I simply used the players labeled as starters on each team’s Baseball-Reference page. This led to oddities in a few cases, but it was the easiest method without spending hours combing through each team’s game logs. Here is the breakdown of players for each team. Keep in mind that the American League teams have nine players and the National League teams have eight, due to the designated hitter.

  Elite Good Above Average Average Below Average Poor Useless
Yankees 3 5 0 1 0 0 0
Red Sox 3 0 3 1 0 1 1
Twins 1 3 0 0 1 2 2
Angels 0 3 3 3 0 0 0
AL AVG 1.75 2.75 1.50 1.25 0.25 0.75 0.75
Phillies 2 2 1 1 1 1 0
Dodgers 1 2 1 2 1 1 0
Rockies 2 2 1 2 0 1 0
Cardinals 2 0 0 3 1 2 0
NL AVG 1.75 1.50 0.75 2.00 0.75 1.25 0.00
MLB AVG 1.75 2.19 1.17 1.58 0.47 0.97 0.42

Looking at the National League teams, we can see that it is necessary to have a couple of “elite” level players and two or more guys somewhere in the “above average” to “good” range, all while avoiding any major black holes in the lineup.

Let’s move on to the Pirates and how they stack up over the next two years or so. McCutchen is putting together a second consecutive “good” season. At 23-years-old, there is only room to improve. To be conservative, let’s project Cutch to be a “good” hitter, although he could easily end up in the “elite” level.

Alvarez has produced at an elite level in the minors, and I see no reason to expect less once he reaches Pittsburgh. He is likely to need an adjustment period initially after his arrival, but I am labeling him as an “elite” hitter starting as early as next season.

Next on the list is Tabata, a player who is difficult to project. I am optimistic about his future, but expectations for the next few years should be conservative. He is only 21, so it will likely take some time for him to reach his prime years. I think it is reasonable to place him in the “above average” group for the upcoming couple of seasons.

It is also tough to predict how Walker will perform. He has mostly struggled in his minor league career, but he looks like a completely different hitter in 2010. His wOBA is currently at .340, so let’s stick with that and place him in the “average” category.

Garrett Jones posted a .396 wOBA and is currently at .356 in 2010. ZiPS sees him maintaining that approximate level throughout the remainder of the season. Jones will be 29 next week, so we should expect him to be entering his decline years soon. That being said, if his numbers do drop, I think he could form a solid platoon with Steve Pearce. Between Pearce and Jones, let’s say we have one position player with “above average” production.

Ryan Doumit has had his struggles this season, but he continues to provide legitimate offensive production for a catcher. He produced an above average wOBA in 2007 (.347), 2008 (.367) and 2010 (.349), sandwiched around a poor, injury-marred 2009. Let’s project him as “above average.” Tony Sanchez is poised to take over behind the plate as early as mid-2010, but it is impossible to guess how well he will hit until we see him above High-A.

Ronny Cedeno is a bad hitter. There is no reason to expect anything above the “useless” category.

That leaves us with Andy LaRoche and Lastings Milledge, possibly vying for the lone remaining lineup spot. Both have been pretty awful this season, but I would expect them to be somewhere in the “below average” range long-term.

Overall, we have the following breakdown:

Elite Good Above Average Average Below Average Poor Useless
Pirates 1 1 3 1 1 0 1

In order to have a postseason-caliber offense, the Bucs will need a few things to break their way.  McCutchen needs to evolve into an elite-level hitter.  At least two players out of the Doumit, Jones, Walker trio need to step up their production.  Finally, the Bucs need to fill two large holes in their lineup with league average-ish hitters.

Is that possible? Realistic?

Next up, the defense.

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  1. hey matt, this is sean’s (ashley’s boyfriend) brother jason. enjoyed the article. always useful material from the blog.

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