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Gary Armida's Blog
Can the Pirates Finally Win? Stuck
Posted on June 20, 2012 at 09:16 AM.

At this time last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates were 35-37, having just come off of their fourth consecutive loss. They were just four games behind the division leading Cardinals. At the end of June, the Pirates were once again over .500 and heading towards the All-Star break near the top of the Central Division standings. And, as is well known, the finished with a record of 72-90. 2011 marked the franchiseís 19th consecutive losing season.

The reasons for the poor finish were plentiful. Despite adding some offense, the smoke and mirrors rotation finally succomed to the reality that a rotation could not survive for the long haul without getting strikeouts. The lack of strikeouts caused the starters to yield too many hits, put too much stress on the defense, and completely wipe out a stellar bullpen.

This year, the Pirates are once again surprising. They are 35-31 and just 2.5 games behind the division leading Reds. Despite the worst offense in the League, the Pirates are in second place and are once again zeroing in on a .500 season. But, the pitching staff still doesnít strike out a ton of batters. The bullpen, while dominant, is third in the league in innings pitched. Given their poor offense, are the 2012 Pirates a mere mirage, just like a season ago?

Although the similarities are striking, the 2012 Pirates are in a much better position to finish the season at .500 than they were a season ago. And, more importantly, their General Manager Neil Huntington is stocking the farm system with the right type of pitching prospects.

The real improvement for the Pirates is the development of James McDonald, their 27 year old ace. McDonald has always had the tools, but this season he is putting it all together. In 13 starts, the right hander is 5-3 with a 2.32 ERA in 81.1 innings. Heís averaged just 6.2 H/9, a career low 2.7 BB/9, and career high 8.6 K/9. While his .251 BABIP is extremely low, his 2.72 FIP indicates that he isnít a big beneficiary of defensive help. He is performing like a legitimate top of the rotation pitcher.

Unlike last season, the Pirates have a top of the rotation pitcher who can elicit strikeouts and limit contact. Last season, Kevin Correia was an All-Star. But, he gave up far too many hits, didnít strike out enough hitters, and, predictably, fell apart in the second half. McDonald has improved each season and has the arsenal to succeed. Moving forward, the Pirates have an above average starter to plug into their rotation when the prospects begin to arrive.

The difference in the 2012 Pirates is the presence of AJ Burnett and Erik Bedard. Burnett was much maligned during his time in New York, but one thing was always a given with the right hander. He took the ball and always pitched 190 innings. Now 35 years old, Burnettís exit from New York and return to the National League has allowed him to settle in to the middle of the Pirates rotation. After missing the first month due to eye surgery, Burnett has given the Pirates exactly what they were looking for. In 11 starts, he is 7-2 with a 3.52 ERA in 69 innings. Heís averaged 8.3 H/9, 3.1 BB/9, and 7.6 K/9. His 3.64 FIP also demonstrates just how well he is pitching. The innings and strikeouts were certainly missing last season.

It is never about ability when the discussion turns to Erik Bedard. The talented southpaw is one of the better pitchers in Baseball when healthy. Last year, he was able to navigate his way through a season. The Pirates signed him this winter to help bolster their rotation. In 13 starts, the 33 year old is 4-7 with a 4.36 ERA in 66 innings. Heís allowed 66 hits and has struck out 62 batters. His ERA is a bit deceptive as his FIP is actually 3.57, indicating some poor fielding--which is surprising--behind him. Bedard also has issued 30 walks, far too high. The worry with Bedard is health. His last six starts have been quite uneven with three very good starts mixed in with three awful starts. 20 of his walks have come within the past six starts. Itís either just a rut or an indicator of a bigger issue.

The top three starters are vital towards the Pirates success. Their fourth and fifth starters have been among the Leagueís worst, which has necessitated heavy bullpen use. The Piratesí pen has a 13-4 record, with the four losses being a League low. They've thrown 208.1 innings, third most in the League, while averaging 8.8 K/9, 0.95 HR/9, and 3.3 BB/9. They have a league leading 2.76 ERA. But, theyíve been the beneficiary of the Pirates defense as their FIP of 3.95 indicates. There are six relievers on the team that have made between 27 to 30 appearances already this season. Moving forward, that is unsustainable.

And, then there is that offense. The Pirates rank last in the National League in on base percentage. They rank 15th (second to last) in runs scored, batting average, and slugging percentage. Andrew McCutchen aside, no Pirates batter has an OBP over .330. In fact, only three regulars have an on base percentage over .300. But, McCutchen is having an MVP season, keeping his team afloat. The 25 year old centerfielder is batting .332/.390/.562 with 12 doubles, 3 triples, 12 homeruns, 39 RBI, and 12 stolen bases. There may be no more valuable player to his team than McCutchen.

There is some hope for improvement. The team BABIP is just .276, indicating some bad luck that should adjust a bit more to the league average. That should create some more run scoring opportunities. Pedro Alvarez is showing plus power. There should be some improved production from Jose Tabata, Alex Pressley, Garret Jones, and Casey McGehee. The team will never be confused with the 27 Yankees, but they should produce a bit more as the season continues.

Despite the terrible offense and the overworked bullpen, there is legitimate reason for optimism. They play very good defense as their 5.3 UZR indicates, which is 5th best in the NL. But, the main reason for optimism is Huntingtonís recent drafts. The Pirates system was bereft with power pitchers, but now boast Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, and 2012 first round pick Mark Appel. Those are three, high end power pitchers who, if healthy, can form one of the best power rotations in the game in a few years.

But, thatís a few years. 2012 is an interesting scenario. Pirates fans have been patient. 19 years of losing is difficult enough, especially when considering the chaos that has been the organization over that time. They have a chance to have a winning record. Thatís important, even if they donít make the playoffs. Huntington has to supplement the roster, adding a bat or two and maybe a starter. The Pirates cannot be sellers this season. They must get to 81 wins. Of course, they donít trade their best prospects, but they have to do everything in their power to have a winning season. A winning culture has to be established before the young pitchers arrive. Andrew McCutchen needs some help.

The 2012 Pirates are not like last yearís version. The team foundation is more sound. They just need to add a couple of pieces to have a winning season. Then, the big prospects will arrive. Things havenít looked this good in Pittsburgh since Barry Bonds was roaming left field. With the right move or two, the Pirates can point to 2012 as the year they turned their franchise truly around.
# 1 Shosum13 @ Jun 20
It's a long season there are still almost 100 games left, anything can happen. I'm really hoping my tigers can pick it up.
Gary Armida
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