2011 pre-season preview: NL Central – Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates CF Andrew McCutchen

Pittsburgh Pirates (2010 record: 57-105)

Notable additions: SP Kevin Correia, LF Matt Diaz, SP Scott Olsen, 1B Lyle Overbay

Notable subtractions: SP Zach Duke

The Pittsburgh Pirates’ current streak of 18 consecutive losing seasons is the longest such streak in history for any North American professional sports franchise. The drought in The Steel City will reach 19 seasons this year, and it seems almost certain the streak will reach two decades next year, as the on-field product seems only slightly improved over last year’s club.

The infusion of prospects has begun, but while they have introduced some top prospects at the major league level, it remains to seen just how much talent the organization has left in its farm system. Improvement, if it is to be achieved, will likely be slow due to the youth of the core players at the major league level and the paucity of talent remaining in the minors.

The offense:

Catcher: Chris Snyder

Infield: Lyle Overbay (1B), Neil Walker (2B), Pedro Alvarez (3B), Ronny Cedeño (SS)

Outfield: Jose Tabata (LF), Andrew McCutchen (CF), Garrett Jones (RF)

The fortunes of the ballclub have been entrusted to a 21-year-old (Tabata), a pair of 23-year-olds (Alvarez and McCutchen) and a 24-year-old (Neil Walker). Each of these young players have demonstrated they can perform in The Show in spite of their age and minimal experience… the question is whether they can develop into the type of talents that will help a small-market team compete for a championship. Even if they eventually develop into that type of player, it may take three or four years before they can lift the ballclub into contention.

Tabata finally started to display the talent that once made him the pride of the New York Yankees farm system. Though he has shown limited power at this stage, he should be able to hit for average, steal a bushel of bases, and perform brilliantly on defense. At just 21 years of age, he has time to develop the kind of power most clubs want from a corner outfielder. McCutcheon has the combination of power and speed that should enable him to become a perennial all-star. Walker was a first-round pick in 2004 who was a disappointment for the first six years of his professional career – until last year. He earned a promotion to Pittsburgh after hitting .321 in his first 43 games at Indianapolis… then, once in The Show, he hit .296, with 12 HR and 66 RBI. Entering 2011, no one knows whether 2010 a fluke or whether it was it the base-line for his future. Alvarez was somewhat of a disappointment… while he showed the kind of power that was expected, he looked like Mark Reynolds at the plate (119 K in 347 AB).

Beyond those players, there seems to be limited potential for growth among the remaining offensive performers. Jones was unable to maintain the skill set he displayed in his rookie campaign and will become a platoon player (with Matt Diaz) – his 30% hit rate from 2009 should now be considered an outlier. Overbay should hit for a decent average with 15-20 home runs, but as the saying goes, “he is what he is”. Cedeno is a good defender but just an average offensive performer. Snyder has considerable power, but his batting average has declined steadily since 2006… maybe the change of scenery will help but a 70% contact rate and 24% hit rate suggest he’ll never be more than a .230 hitter, with 25 HR and 170+ strikeouts, if he should ever get 500 ABs.

The pitching staff:

Rotation: Paul Maholm, James McDonald, Ross Ohlendorf, Scott Olsen and Kevin Correia.

Closer: Joel Hanrahan.

The game of baseball starts with the pitcher, and the Pirates staff is underwhelming (to say the least). Maholm (4.48) and Ohlendorf (4.40) are the only proven starters with a career ERA under 4.50. The club is in the process of converting righty reliever James McDonald (3.84 ERA in 140 career IP) into a full-time starting pitcher… with a plus fastball and excellent curve, he has the greatest potential to develop into a top-of-the-rotation starter among all of the pitchers currently in the rotation. Behind them, there is little in the way of quality (or quantity)… RHP Kevin Correia and LHP Scott Olsen should at least be able to help protect the bullpen from over-use.

Joel Hanrahan (100K in 69.2 IP) will likely be the ballclub’s closer in 2011 and Evan Meek, the club’s lone all-star last year, will be an excellent set-up man. Beyond those two hard-throwing right-handers, the bullpen will be a work in progress.

Prediction for 2011: 6th place (62-100)

The Pirates have promoted a few quality prospects to the major league team over the last couple of years, but those promotions have left the minor league system somewhat depleted beyond one or two blue-chip types who remain (ie Jameson Taillon). While the team should be a little better this season, it will be another couple of years before any substantive turnaround will take place.


The Pirates top prospect, Jameson Taillon

Top Five Prospects:

1. Jameson Taillon, RHP
2. Stetson Allie, RHP
3. Starling Marte, OF
4. Rudy Owens, LHP
5. Tony Sanchez, C

The Pirates gambled with their selection of Taillon with the second overall pick in last June’s draft. While it is true that he has tremendous upside, he is still very young and an awful lot can happen on the road to The Show. According to published reports, the Pittsburgh scouts liked him better than consensus No. 1 pick Bryce Harper, which could be somewhat of an indictment of the Bucs’ scouting personnel as hitters are much easier to project than pitchers, especially one as young as Taillon, and are less prone to injury. Suffice it to say the two players were clearly the #1 and #2 talents in the draft – players of extraordinary potential.

The Pirates and Taillon failed to come to an agreement until the eve of the signing deadline, so the young righty lost a year of development at the professional level.

Taillon has been favorably compared to Josh Beckett, though he is physically much larger than the one-time Marlins and Red Sox ace. He has an explosive mid-90s fastball that will touch 99 mph and is widely characterized as being a “heavy” pitch. He also has a mid-80s curveball that is equally effective. Both pitches grade as a “70” on the 20-60 scouting scale, and many scouts considered the two pitches to be the two best pitches in the 2010 draft. In the instructional league, he flashed a surprisingly good slider that some scouts graded as being nearly as good as his curve (graded as a “65”).

He needs to become more consistent and repetitive with his mechanics in order to improve his already above-average command. He will likely start 2011 in Lo-A ball, but it seems quite possible he’ll end the year in Double-A, where he may take some lumps initially but will need the challenge of the competition to bring out the best in him.

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