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Springtime Storylines: Are the Pittsburgh Pirates getting any closer to breaking .500?

Mar 6, 2012, 8:49 AM EDT

Pirates Spring Baseball AP

Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2012 season. Up first: The Pirates. Yarrr?

The Big Question: Are the Buccos getting closer to snapping their streak of losing seasons?

Most of these team previews will operate in the present with all focus being paid to 2012. But the Pirates haven’t won more than 79 games since 1992, the year Kriss Kross released “Jump” and a Western starring Clint Eastwood was awarded Best Picture. Bucs fans don’t have the luxury of spring training hope, and you don’t come here for soft analysis.

(Did that sound tough? … Tough AND cool, you say? This pop culture reference schtick really works)

The answer to The Big Question up top is “yes” because simple math says it has to be. The Pirates were in first place in the National League Central standings as late as July 25 last season and finished with their lowest loss total (90) since 2004. They also prevented runs at a rate not seen in Pittsburgh since ’02.

And while the neon light at the end of the tunnel isn’t flashing “PLAYOFFS” quite yet, the Pirates are beginning to develop better talent and are finally starting to make helpful (rather than hurtful) off-field moves.

This offseason serves as a nice example. The Bucs weren’t swayed by left-hander Paul Maholm‘s decent showing in 2011 and swiftly declined his $9.75 million club option for 2012. He posted a 96 ERA+ (below the league average) in his six full years in the Pittsburgh rotation. Jose Veras, a steady but replaceable middle reliever, was traded to the Brewers for Casey McGehee, who slugged 23 homers alongside an .801 OPS in 2010 and can push youngster Pedro Alvarez at the hot corner. Veteran starter Erik Bedard was brought aboard on a low-risk one-year, $4.5 million free agent contract. Clint Barmes was given a two-year, $10.5 million free agent deal to provide a reliable temporary fix at shortstop.

The Pirates also locked up one of the game’s best young center fielders, Andrew McCutchen, to a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension this spring. That deal has an extremely team-friendly feel.

Put simply: better decisions are being made in the Pirates front office. That might not have an impact in 2012 or even 2013, but Pittsburgh’s baseball club is like a ship on the horizon … dammit, that’s too corny.

What Else Is Going On?

  • The Pirates have been aggressive recently on the international market and in the draft, building a farm system that could soon yield a couple of front-line starters. Gerrit Cole, a power pitcher from UCLA, was last year’s No. 1 overall pick and is already a Top 12 prospect according to Baseball America. Jameson Taillon posted a 3.98 ERA  and 97 strikeouts in 92 2/3 innings at Single-A last season as a 19-year-old. Luis Heredia is just 17 years old and far more raw than the other two, but he was a high-profile international signee out of Mexico — the type of player the Pirates would, in the past, ignore.
  • The Bucs drafted high school outfielder Josh Bell in the second round last June. Many teams figured he was unsignable because of a strong commitment to the University of Texas, but the Pirates threw a second-round record $5 million signing bonus at him and were able to strike an agreement. Pittsburgh spent a franchise-record $11.9 million on the 2010 draft, then smashed that this past year with over $17 million in contracts. Small-market teams must develop their own (cost-controlled) talent. The Pirates are finally making investments on the right side of baseball’s massive money pot.
  • Hugging the Roberto Clemente Bridge and offering sweeping views of the downtown Pittsburgh skyline, PNC Park is widely regarded as one of the best stadium settings in all of professional sports. Last year’s competitive first half helped attendance shoot above 1.9 million for the first time since the park opened in 2001. The Pirates would probably like to consistently hover above the two million mark.
  • He doesn’t draw a ton of praise outside of fantasy baseball circles, but hard-throwing Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan registered a dominant 1.83 ERA, 1.05 WHIP and 61/16 K/BB ratio in 68 2/3 innings last season while converting 40-of-44 save opportunities. If the Pirates’ still-shaky starting rotation can manage to get him leads, Hanrahan has the goods to turn those leads into victories.

How Are They Gonna Do?

The Pirates showed promise in the first half of 2011 and are coming off a productive winter. With slightly better performances from the likes of Neil Walker, Jose Tabata and Garrett Jones, Pittsburgh could challenge for 75-80 wins this season. Which should be good enough for fourth place in the six-team NL Central — above the Cubs and Astros but again behind the Cardinals, Reds and Brewers.

  1. churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 6, 2012 at 9:05 AM

    Pittsburgh spent a franchise-record $11.9 million on the 2010 draft, then smashed that this past year with over $17 million in contracts. Small-market teams must develop their own (cost-controlled) talent. The Pirates are finally making investments on the right side of baseball’s massive money pot.

    And then MLB and the MLBPA had to go and mess this all up with the latest CBA. Still no clue why small market owners would agree to this.

    • stex52 - Mar 6, 2012 at 9:10 AM

      Agreed. Seems like Bud and the big boys like to work together to maintain their natural advantage. Even if having the big markets ran up the price of draft choices, it is still more affordable than the free agents. And the higher risk of the draft would cause them to gravitate back toward overpaying for the proven talents.

      But the deal is done.

    • paperlions - Mar 6, 2012 at 9:22 AM

      Yep, the new CBA helped ensure that if the Pirates ever do compete, it will be for short windows. The combination of reduced draft pick compensation for loss of FAs and cost control on spending on amateur talent was a giant middle finger to small market teams (yeah, I’m thinking about you Tampa Bay).

  2. umrguy42 - Mar 6, 2012 at 9:26 AM

    I got the impression in past years that the problem for the Pirates wasn’t so much growing their own talent, but keeping the good ones once they hit free agency?

    • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 6, 2012 at 9:32 AM

      It’s an issue for almost all teams. One of the biggest advantages the Yanks have with all their money, and lack of a salary cap*, is that when they finally strike gold with a draft pick, they can afford to keep that pick AND sign the top free agents. Most teams can afford to keep maybe one or two great players around, not the 4-5 the Yanks were able to do through the late 90s/early 00s (Jeter, Posada, Rivera, Williams, etc).

      The Pirates finally start flexing some financial muscle, and $17M total for the draft is peanuts compared to the RoI, get some great picks, and then MLB/MLBPA flushes it all away the following year.

      *this isn’t a screed for a cap, which does nothing but put more money in owner’s pockets.

      • The Baseball Idiot - Mar 6, 2012 at 10:17 AM

        So how do you expect to fix it then?

        The luxury tax isn’t working. It keeps some teams from overspending, but if they really want a free agent, they can still buy him whereas others can’t.

        It’s either the status quo, or some radical system like a salary cap (which I am against).

        However:

        “*this isn’t a screed for a cap, which does nothing but put more money in owner’s pockets”

        when people say this, what they usually mean is: ‘less money in the player’s pocket’

        How is one group of greedy egomaniacs different than another?

      • churchoftheperpetuallyoutraged - Mar 6, 2012 at 11:25 AM

        So how do you expect to fix it then?

        Let the market play itself out? What was so bad before that they had to make a change? I posted this when the CBA was first ratified, that the Pirates spent more on the entire draft than some NFL teams spend on their first round pick! $17M for a draft class is peanuts compared to the RoI the teams get if even one of those players pans out as a regular MLB player.

        The luxury tax isn’t working. It keeps some teams from overspending, but if they really want a free agent, they can still buy him whereas others can’t.

        I’d say it is working as the worst offender is going to try and do everything possible to get under the cap.

        “*this isn’t a screed for a cap, which does nothing but put more money in owner’s pockets”

        when people say this, what they usually mean is: ‘less money in the player’s pocket’

        How is one group of greedy egomaniacs different than another?

        For one, people go to see the players play, not to see the owners. Yes the owner’s money allows the games to happen, but if every team was put up for sale, you’d have dozens of rich people getting in line to buy a team.

        Two, the players increase the popularity of the game, again not the owners. So each year the league breaks record profits, a salary cap would put all those gains into the hands of the owners.

      • paperlions - Mar 6, 2012 at 11:57 AM

        There is no “fix”. It is too late; this is the financial structure we have. MLB would have had to negotiate national TV contracts or instituted high levels of revenue sharing….the big money (corporate advertising and TV) is now associated with local TV contracts and RSNs….there is no “fix”…as the kids say…it is what it is (and it won’t be changing).

        The problem is that MLB is actively screwing over small market teams even more by restricting HOW they spend the money they do have.

    • istillbelieveinblue - Mar 6, 2012 at 12:46 PM

      I live in Indianapolis, so I’ve watched a parade of mediocre, over-hyped prospects come through Victory Field on the way to Pittsburgh (McCutchen being the exception). The problem over the last 5 years has been poor drafting and poor player development. The Pirates have wasted top draft picks on players like Brian Bullington and rushed players like Pedro Alvarez (68 KO vs 32BB in 278PA in his first year at AAA). They seem to be making progress, but you don’t rebuild a farm system overnight.

  3. El Bravo - Mar 6, 2012 at 9:52 AM

    Without reading this post, I will attempt to answer the question posed in the headline: OH HELL NO!

    • florida76 - Mar 6, 2012 at 10:39 AM

      Any objective, intelligent fan would have to say yes. Unfortunately, some people are stuck with stereotypes, and generalizations from the past. The Bucs have definitely upgraded their roster, and many of their young players should only improve from 2011. Injuries(after Burnett returns), shouldn’t be as numerous as 2011, either. Contrary to the perception, the Pirates didn’t have a ton of players who overachieved last season.

      The weakened NL Central also helps the Bucs. Low win estimate is in the mid 70s range, and with a few breaks, .500 is a realistic possibility. The organization appears to be finally on the right track, to regaining the winning ways of the past.

      • CJ - Mar 6, 2012 at 11:07 AM

        yet, as stated above the CBA really makes it difficult for them to continue to use the model that has put them on this path to begin with.

        Are they closer to breaking .500 this year? Yeah, they’ll win a more games than last year probably, but no that’s not going to get them any closer to actually getting to .500 anytime soon.

      • paperlions - Mar 6, 2012 at 12:03 PM

        The Central isn’t really any weaker this year than last. Two players left, others have come in or returned from injury. This year may be the Pirates best chance at .500 with the Astros around. After the Astros leave, and with the Cubs now being brought out of the 1970s and into the 21st century, the Pirates likely will be an annual contender for the cellar.

        The new CBA is going to make it very hard to develop an entire group of young players to populate a competitive roster, and the Pirates are still going to have problems keeping most of their young talent around. As mentioned above, teams will have to pick and choose who to keep and who to let go…and compensation for lost FAs is going way down.

  4. florida76 - Mar 6, 2012 at 2:16 PM

    I honestly don’t know how many people here realize the Bucs improved by 15 games last year, meaning they’re only 11 games away from reaching .500. The NL Central will definitely be weaker this year, with Milwaukee and St. Louis taking a step back. The Brewers lost Fielder, and players associated with PEDS like Braun struggle after these investigations. The Cards just lost two future hall of famers, and how many defending World Champs in MLB history return with someone who’s never managed before?

    The Cubs are still the Cubs, and the Astros are just horrible. Reds should take the division. In terms of keeping talented players, yes, it will be more difficult, but the Bucs aren’t in the same division as the Yanks and Red Sox. Sure, the system is flawed, always has been, but the Bucs current management has made plenty of smart moves. Not even the most loyal Pirates fans thought a deal for Cutch would be done so quickly, that’s good management. Things are definitely looking up, if you take the time and effort to study the situation properly.

  5. dexterismyhero - Mar 6, 2012 at 3:08 PM

    no….

  6. stairwayto7 - Mar 6, 2012 at 3:56 PM

    Pirates get 85 wins and finish 2nd behind the Reds…

  7. foreverchipper10 - Mar 6, 2012 at 4:28 PM

    They do have a really nice stadium. I’ve been to a few games out there. Then I drank my sorrows away as the hometown Bucs would almost always beat the Braves at the games I attended. At least I could top my night off with an enormous order of fries from the O.

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