Monday, March 28, 2011

Spring Training Spotlight: Pittsburgh

Continuing our recent trend of spotlighting long-suffering NL Central teams, we shift our focus over to the Steel City of Pittsburgh. It's been a long few decades for the 'Burgh's remaining baseball fans, as the recent success of both the Penguins (2009 Stanley Cup champion) and Steelers (2005 + 2008 Super Bowl champs) has drawn most of the city's sports fans away from PNC Park. It's a shame that the Pirates have been so poor lately, because, having been to PNC Park multiple times, I can say it's actually quite the ballpark--they could just use a competitive team to fill it. So what's happened to the franchise of Clemente, Bonds, and Stargell--why haven't the Pirates had a winning season since 1992?

Huntington, 41, enters his 4th season as Pirates GM
For years, the Pirates had a cycle going: get decent players who rise out of their farm system, under-perform as a team, and then trade those good players to contenders for more promising prospects...who would then improve enough to the point where a contending team would want them, and get traded for more prospects.  Players like Jason Bay, Nyjer Morgan, Nate McClouth, Adam LaRoche, Jack Wilson, and Xavier Nady have all been traded away in recent seasons for minor leaguers--not all great major leaguers, for sure, but some could be parts on successful teams. However, the Pirates finally seem to have a few young, promising hitters in the lineup at the same time, and GM Neal Huntington (above)  has had a few years to develop the farm system in his image to the point where the players coming up through it are his picks, and not the old regime's. Could this be the year the Pirates approach some level of respectability? Hit the jump to find out!

For a few years, it seemed as if the Pirates could get only one or two talented hitters in their lineups at any given time--Freddy Sanchez and Jack Wilson in '07, Xavier Nady and Jason Bay in '08--but that could change this season. Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata form a nice quartet of 25-and-under hitters with a lot of potential. McCutchen, in his first full season in the bigs, played 154 games, and hit .286/.365/.449 with 33 steals to go along with 16 home runs and 56 RBIs. If he can continue improving, now that he's 24 years old and entering what could be his prime seasons, he could be a force at the top of the lineup for the Pirates. He's off to his best spring yet, batting .375/.462/.589 in 56 spring at-bats, a nice little sample for the upcoming season. If the Pirates can get his bat going at the top of the lineup, they now have some nice bats behind him to try and get the speedy center fielder across the plate 100 times.

The Pirates are hoping for big things from Alvarez
One of those bats is 2008 first-round draft pick Pedro Alvarez (left), a slugging third baseman nicknamed "El Toro," the Bull. Alvarez was the first pick of Huntington's first draft, so there's some pressure on Alvarez to perform, at least from evaluating how Huntington's legacy will begin to form in the Steel City. So far, the results have mixed, and with Alvarez having plenty of collegiate experience at Vanderbilt, and already having turned 24, he's not exactly young for a top prospect. Last year, in his first MLB experience, he hit .256/.326/.461 in 347 at-bats, along with 16 home runs and 64 RBI...though he also struck out 119 times. Unfortunately, many of those bad habits seem to have stuck around this spring, as he's already struck out 25 times in just 63 at-bats, while putting up splits of .254/.299/.444. Now, he could certainly turn it around when the season starts, and 24 is not too old that improvement is impossible, but it's a bit of a troubling sign.

Jose Tabata and Neil Walker make up the other half of the Pirates younger quartet, and are just as important to the Pirates organization as Alvarez and McCutchen--it's the play of these two that most likely determines how the Pirates will act at the trade deadline. If it seems like McCutchen and Alvarez are still the only two offensive talents on the team, then the Pirates could fall back into their ways of old, trading away players before they'd have to sign them to big contracts they can't afford. If, however, the 25-year-old Walker and the maybe-22-year-old Tabata hit like they did last year, then the Pirates could have a lineup that could win them a few games. Walker hit .296/.349/.462 in 426 ABs for the Pirates last season, and was named to MLB's all-rookie team at second base. At one point, Walker was the 3rd-rated prospect in the Pirates system behind McCutchen and Brad Lincoln, so the talent and potential are there. Tabata, who's not exactly having the best spring (.230/.304/.311), needs to hit like he did in 2010 (.299/.346/.400), and if possible the Pirates could use a slightly higher OBP from Tabata, who also stole 19 bases and hit 35 RBIs in his 405 at-bats last season.

Does that mean if the Pirates hit, that they'll be playoff contenders? No, at least not this year. The pitching is still far behind the hitting, and the bench gets a little thin (Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz are good veterans on the team, and could provide some offensive support while definitely giving some leadership lessons to the youngsters), but what could happen this season is hope. Lefty Paul Maholm is 29 years old, just in the prime of his career but not too old that he won't be useful in a few years. Clint Hurdle has the pieces in place to maybe get the Pirates out of the cellar--and if that's enough to put some fans in the seats at PNC Park, then that could be what Pittsburgh needs to be a three-sport town again.

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