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.
Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.
To a degree, Tim is right. But he’s about as right as his claim the 15 game improvement is a sign of significant progress, which it’s not.Karstens and Morton did take steps forward. But the steps were from pieces that were on their way out of professional baseball to #4 , at best, or #5 starters. Those types of leaps are what will keep the Pirates from losing 105-110 games while actually losing 95-100. But he wants to make it seem like there’s currently enough talent for this club to compete next year? Honestly, there’s no difference between him and the people who think the world is flat, that dinasaurs didn’t exist or Roger Moore was the best James Bond.
Nice input and analysis.
However, I’m one of those referred to who don’t foresee the greatness ahead. Andrew slumped badly in 2 months, to a below league average hitter. The season is 162 games long. What happens in April and May is generally forgotten at the end of September. He did very well for 2/3 of the season. His slide coincided with the slides of others and a slew of injuries. I lay the blame for the slide on the injury to Presley and tired rotation arms. I also feel the GM should have taken heat in mid July for not getting reinforcements. I can’t prove otherwise but he shouldn’t have waited till the deadline to pick up someone. Imagine what a hot 1st baseman could have done with 2 additional weeks in the lineup for a team with no slugger and few competent bats.
Is ‘dro worth counting on? Does he have the desire? I know all about Mike Schmidt and his early struggles, but what player has struggled in the past after “establishing” himself? My only comparisons would be Super Joe Charbenau and Tony Conigliaro. Maybe there are others who failed so miserably, maybe falling back after being a shoo-in to be in the lineup every day is more common place than I think. Certainly there are examples of each.
Really, what is to be excited about next season? Is Meek going to pitch well if he avoids injury, can Karstens duplicate this season, is Morton for real, where is Hanrahan’s future, can Lincoln hold up for a full season and prove he belongs, who plays 1st or SS or even 3rd? Is this the year the GM gets it right and adds worthy bench guys? Is there going to be an upgrade to the rotation or a setup guy added for late innings in case Meek is injured or is not effective?
I think the early season glitter can not be repeated w/o somewhat significant upgrades. Free agency isn’t going to add, and given past results, could regress the roster (although that’s nearly impossible). Tim characterized the division as weak. Look at the playoffs and, lo and behold, 2 Central teams are there. Those teams added and improved their rosters before the trade deadline. Teams not sitting back and waiting for July 31st making bold trades. How daring!
2012 will be more of the same….look to the future, the aces are coming, blah, blah, blah. Tim, this sentence is directed specifically at the best mgmt team in all of baseball and not towards you.
If the planets align correctly and the questions are resolved 2012 may very well contain some excitement and I dearly hope it does. In the end, I think 2012 will be losing year #20 , but what does it matter to the best mgmt team in baseball. After all, it’s just a number to them.
It was an enjoyable and yes sometime frustrating season, but it was nice to watch the team and see that finally (although far away still) there might be some light at the end of the tunnel. Now I will spend my efforts hoping the Brewers get beat! Let’s go Diamondbacks!