Coming of last year's surprise run to first place in July and subsequent epic collapse to a typical 4th place finish, this year's season looks to be a pretty pivotol point for the current era of Pirates baseball.
On the one hand, there is still some lingering excitement over last year. McCutchen is locked up until at least 2017 and seems like the safest option for buying a jersey since Jason Bay. And the additions of A.J. Burnett, Erik Bedard, Clint Barmes, Nate McLouth, Casey McGehee, and Rod Barajas offer the most tangible example I can remember of actual offseason upgrades.
On the other hand, the 2011 collapse was pretty impressive and only reinforced much of the entrenched cynicism in the minds of many could-be fans. Pedro Alvarez, who desperately needs to work out if a postseason run into August or September is going to happen any time soon, is walking a perilously thin line between potential breakout candidate and certified bust. And, the arrival of the best prospects in the system still look to be a few years down the road.
In my mind, the Pirates season is going to be defined by whether or not they can avoid looking like a joke at any point. While last year's run was great and was the perfect spark plug for re-igniting the interest of lot of people in the city, I think a lot of people look at the 19-42 record after the devastating loss to the Braves on a bad call in the 19th inning as more representative of the "real" Pirates. Even if the Pirates could just equal last season's 72-90 record via a more balanced path, I think the perception in the city would be that of a maturing team that is on the right path. An early stumble that puts them immediately out of contention or a late season collapse that undermines the reast of the season could kill any goodwill that's been built up with the local fan base since Clint Hurdle's arrival.
With that said, here's my quick take on how the season could go:
If things go right:
- The additions of Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett allows the staff to maintain through September. When things were clicking last season for the starters, the Pirates were at their best. It was their inability to stay good that ultimately killed us last season. Injuries, fatigue and inexperience ultimately proved too much in the last third of the season. While Bedard is a Pirate only because of his inability to stay healthy, if those two can be the steadying presences that were lacking late last year, you have to like our chances of winning more than 8 games in August. Plus, by exchanging those two for Maholm, the Pirates have a seven-deep rotation of Bedard-Burnett-McDonald-Morton-Karstens-Correia-Lincoln, not to mention a few promising candidates at AAA Indianapolis.
- McLouth and McGehee give the Pirates the luxury of depth. Depth is one of those underrated factors that the Pirates have been missing for years. Recently, if a starter went out with injury for even just the minimum 15-day stint on the DL, that pretty much spelled doom. There was no competent option waiting in the wings. So while Barmes and Barajas may or may not be upgrades over Cedeno and Doumit/Snyder, having better spare parts may be the more meaningful upgrade.
- Pedro is at least competent at the plate. Since Pedro was drafted, he's been counted on to become the slugger the Pirates need him to be. A majorly disappointing 2011, however, has a lot of people ready to write him off. Maybe he's not destined for superstardom, but he can't be a strikeout machine and liability defensively at third base. If he can just become a competent hitter in '12 with the ability to go deep at any time, the added depth to the lineup alone that he represents would be a boon to the team's chances to win on any given day. Turn it around completely and become the middle-of-the-lineup power hitter we so desperately lack, and the Pirates chances at .500+ and late season contention become that much closer to a reality.
- Pedro is a black hole in the lineup. I may have only listed him third amongst the keys to success, but his potential for failure could be the most significant factor in a season flop. If Pedro can't hit and can't field, the team is eventually going to have to do something about it, most likely by starting McGehee. Not only does this scenario mean our lineup is just as impotent as always, it significantly downgrades the depth that is so key to success.
- Presley-McCutchen-Tabata don't take another step forward. The starting outfield looks to be the one area that this team might actually be ahead of the MLB curve. If those three starters mature, plus McLouth as the fourth outfielder, and prospect Starling Marte waiting for a late season call up, the Pirates suddenly find themselves with a position of strength. Include Gorkys Hernandez in that equation and maybe there's even an opportunity to exploit another team's OF need to win a trade, a la the Penguins flipping Goligoski for Neal last year. However, if Presley and Tabata in particular can't take the next step into real major leaguers, and we're still just mediocre everywhere.
- Neither Morton nor McDonald emerges. Both have potential to be a top three starter, but neither have shown they can do it for more than brief flashes of time. You gotta think that at least one of them needs to really take a step forward if the staff is going to be asset that it can be. If both flounder, things could unravel quickly.
- With a new collective bargaining agreement constraining draft spending, do the Pirates lose the one edge they've had over the past five years? We'll find out in June.
- With Pujols and Fielder gone and the division's biggest douche, Ryan Braun, possibly off the juice, does a weaker division possibly mean a few extra wins just based on strength of competition? That'd be nice.
- With as promising of a top 10 prospects list that we've had in years, can the organization actually develop talent? I know I'll be keeping an eye out on the farm system, particularly last year's top two picks Gerrit Cole and Josh Bell and the other potential top-of-the-rotation talents Jameson Taillong and Luis Heredia.