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2011 Pirates Preview: Dream Sequences

John Toperzer

John Toperzer

John Toperzer writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

2011 Pirates Preview
by John Toperzer, RotoWire Writer

Dream sequence...

"Three Rivers Stadium housed two professional franchises when it opened in the summer of 1970, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Steelers' owner Art Rooney Sr. fielded a team that had never won a division title since its inception in 1933. The "Chief" named his football franchise the Pirates, in honor of his passion for baseball. The Steelers opened up its new multi-purpose stadium and Rooney was disgruntled because his 50-yard line seats at Three Rivers weren't any good for watching baseball. Forty years of losing can be a mighty long time.

The Pirates haven't won a World Series since 1979. After reaching the postseason three straight seasons, from 1990-92, Pittsburgh's baseball franchise has strung together 18 straight losing campaigns - a North American record among all four major professional sports. For as much as the Steelers were lovable losers for four decades, the Pirates' historic run of losing may never be equaled. The team compiled a 57-105 record in 2010 and finished dead last in the majors for the first time, somewhat surprisingly, since 2001.

Though there aren't any Immaculate Reception stories to help break the Bucs out of their doldrums, it shows that anything is possible. If the Pirates are to succeed - or at least finish with a .500 record - Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez will need to supply big-time stats. Jose Tabata and Neil Walker will need to at least maintain their production levels from last year.

Pitching, unfortunately, continues to look like a black hole - something that you can't see and is even harder to understand. James McDonald and Kevin Correia headline a list of hopefuls and wannabes among starters. The bullpen isn't so bad off, with Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek holding down the fort.

New manager Clint Hurdle will at least take over for an organization that's no longer afraid to spend money on the draft. The Pirates have doled out more cash on amateur talent over the last three years ($30.7 million) than any other franchise.

It might be far-fetched, if not downright silly, to suggest a turnaround for the Pirates - at least in 2011, but another Pittsburgh franchise failed for an even longer amount of time and now has six Super Bowls."

... end dream.

Offseason Moves:

The Pirates designated third baseman Andy LaRoche and utilityman Delwyn Young for assignment.
LaRoche was a major piece of the puzzle in the deadline deal for Jason Bay several seasons ago. Unfortunately he never lived up to his minor league potential with Pittsburgh and has since signed a minor-league deal with Oakland. Young served as a talented pinch-hitter for the Pirates, but he wanted to play more often than Pittsburgh believed he should - given his questionable defensive skills.

The Pirates traded starting pitcher Zach Duke to the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Duke burst onto the scene in 2005 and made the All-Star team in 2009. During his tenure with Pittsburgh, however, he was inconsistent and entirely too hittable.

The Pirates signed free agent starting pitchers Kevin Correia and Scott Olsen, along with reliever Joe Beimel.
Pittsburgh is counting on a rebound campaign from Correia. Olsen gives the Bucs a left-handed starter while Beimel becomes the team's only left-handed presence in the bullpen.

The Pirates signed outfielder Matt Diaz, first baseman Lyle Overbay, first baseman Garrett Atkins, and third baseman Josh Fields.
Diaz gives the team a potential .300 hitter while Overbay solidifies the infield defense. Pittsburgh hopes he has a good season left in bat. Atkins and Fields will report to Triple-A as the former attempts to regain his major-league luster while the latter looks to make good on a prospect tag from long ago.

The Pirates allowed outfielder Lastings Milledge and shortstop Argenis Diaz to leave via free agency.
Milledge was the model citizen in his one season-plus with Pittsburgh, but he became little more than a singles hitter who played adventurously in the outfield. Diaz came to Pittsburgh for Adam LaRoche with the reputation of a good-field, no-hit tag who didn't field particularly well in his short stint.

Projected Lineup/Rotation

Lineup (vs. RH/LH)

1. Andrew McCutchen CF
2. Jose Tabata LF
3. Neil Walker 2B
4. Pedro Alvarez 3B
5. Lyle Overbay 1B
6. Garrett Jones RF/Matt Diaz RF
7. Ryan Doumit C/Chris Snyder C
8. Ronny Cedeno SS

Andrew McCutchen will hit somewhere in the top three spots of the lineup. He's most comfortable in the leadoff role and shows better power there than elsewhere. The Bucs could move Diaz around to break up lefties like Pedro Alvarez and Lyle Overbay. Overall, the lineup card is pretty much set. Execution will be the key.

Rotation:

1. Paul Maholm
2. Kevin Correia
3. James McDonald
4. Ross Ohlendorf
5. Brad Lincoln/Charlie Morton/Scott Olsen

Zach Duke is gone after five seasons and Maholm, who has an option for $9 million-plus in 2012, is next. He'll get every chance to succeed in order for the Pirates to showcase him again at the deadline. Correia, McDonald and Ohlendorf have firm grips on the other three rotation spots. Scott Olsen may have a leg up on the No. 5 spot simply because he's the only southpaw hurler left (aside from Maholm).

Closer:

1. Joel Hanrahan
2. Evan Meek

Hanrahan struck out 100 batters in 69.2 innings and compiled a 12.92 K/9 rate, which was good for third among major league relievers. Meek, who earned the Bucs' lone All-Star nod in 2010, ranked fourth among NL relievers in innings pitched (80) and seventh in ERA (2.14). Neither looked air-tight as a closer, so even though Hanrahan has been named the closer for now, it still might be likely that manager Clint Hurdle will turn to whichever pitcher he believes is throwing better at a particular point in time.

Notes of Import: Fantasy and Otherwise:

Is it possible to have a worse road record in 2011?

The Bucs lost 64 of 81 games away from PNC Park. If not for a 5-4 mark at Wrigley Field, Pittsburgh would have compiled an overall record on the road of 12-60. A 5.48 team ERA on the road suggests that it's more important for fantasy owners to start hitters going against the Bucs than it is to consider using the Pittsburgh pitching staff. The Pirates did go 40-41 at PNC Park, and guys like James McDonald and Joel Hanrahan have fantasy value when Pittsburgh plays at home.

Who sees the majority of time in right field?

There aren't many locks on the Pirates, but it's safe to assume that McCutchen and Tabata will man center field and left nearly every day. GM Neal Huntington brought in Matt Diaz to compete with Garrett Jones in right. If Diaz can stay healthy - he's never played more than 135 games in a single season - then he could have fantasy value. The organization likes Jones, but he doesn't deserve another 654 plate-appearance season.

Diaz signed a two-year deal and Jones isn't arbitration eligible for another season, so the starter will be based on merit as much as money. In a perfect world, the right-handed hitting Diaz and the lefty Jones would form a platoon in the mold of Mike Easler and Lee Lacy.

Internal dark-horse right fielder candidates include Quadruple-A John Bowker, the too-young Andrew Lambo, the singles-hitting Alex Presley, and the defensively-weak Steve Pearce, who plays a much better first base than right.

Gorkys Hernandez, like Presley, is more of a center fielder than corner outfielder by trade, but if he's healthy and hitting .300-plus at Triple-A he could get a mid-summer look.

Pitching is a daunting prospect

Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia have zero chance of helping Pittsburgh at the major league level in 2011. Rudy Owens and Bryan Morris are the two starters mostly likely to get called up during the summer. Owens is a left-handed control freak with no supposed plus pitches. All he's done is win games in the minors. He hasn't thrown at the Triple-A level yet, but if he does well there, then the pitching-poor Pirates might make room for him after the Super-2 threat passes in early June.

At 23, Morris pitched lights out at High-A, started out well after being promoted to Double-A, looked gassed in August and was used out of the bullpen the rest of the way. As a result, he's a tough pitcher to project for 2011. Brad Lincoln will surely get another look. He figures to have better success the second time around, if for no other reason than he's been there and won't have the rookie jitters he showed in 2010. Donald Veal, who is coming off Tommy John surgery, is another pitcher worth tracking. He featured a mid-90s heater and a breaking ball that was improving when he got hurt. Control is his bugaboo.

Hanrahan or Meek?

The Pirates named Joel Hanrahan over Evan Meek as the closer at the onset of spring training. There's still a chance that they could flip-flop roles, but that's one of the team's few good problems.

Huntington would trade either reliever if he thought he could get a comparable value in a starting pitcher. He doesn't seem to believe that effective relief pitching is necessarily repeatable from year to year, and he's probably had better success assembling a pen than in any other area during his three-year tenure. That said, Hanrahan should get the nod on paper. He has more closing experience than Meek and he got more chances to close after the Bucs jettisoned Octavio Dotel last August.

Hurdle is said to prefer one pitcher nailing down his victories, but he was known to switch stoppers at a moment's notice in Colorado. Unless Hanrahan comes out and reels off 10 saves in a row, Meek figures to see his share of save opportunities, too.

Strengths: Young core of Alvarez, Tabata, McCutchen and Walker, bullpen.

Weaknesses: Starting pitching, experience, defense, offense.

Rising: James McDonald -- The term "heist" best defines what Pirates GM Neal Huntington pulled on the Dodgers when he landed both McDonald and prospect Andrew Lambo for Octavio Dotel last summer. McDonald never made the most of his limited opportunities he was given in Los Angeles, but he sure looked comfortable at PNC Park. After coming over in the trade, McDonald compiled a 3.52 ERA with the Bucs, including a home earned run average of 2.91 in 34 innings. A year ago, it looked like his career was trending toward relief work, but now he enters the 2011 campaign with an opportunity to become the ace of the staff. His ability to pinpoint his low/mid-90s fastball and keep his curveball low in the strike zone will go a long ways toward determining whether he can achieve that goal. It might be wise to consider picking him up late, especially considering his strikeout potential -- he had 61 strikeouts in 64 innings with the Pirates down the stretch last season.

Falling: Garrett Jones - Jones could go either way in 2011. The Pirates brought in Matt Diaz to platoon with him, so he could have better numbers hitting against righties. The acquisition of Diaz and Lyle Overbay at first suggests the Pirates don't want the season riding on Jones' success or failure.

Ryan Doumit - Doumit has suffered multiple concussions and his reaction times have suffered. Perhaps a winter of has revitalized him, but Pittsburgh continues to try moving his contract. Fantasy owners looking for 15 homers, 70 RBI and a .280 batting mark will be disappointed. His skills diminished in 2010.

Sleeper: Jose Tabata --Perhaps because he plays for the small-market Pirates, Tabata doesn't get the props he deserves. Unless he suffers from the vaunted sophomore slump, the left fielder figures to hit .280-.300, steal 25-plus bases and increase his home run total to double digits.

Super Sleeper: Rudy Owens - The lefty who outdueled Stephen Strasburg in his professional debut could bust onto the major league scene with a strong Triple-A showing. There's really little stopping his progress at the big league level. His best bet for a debut hinges on a potential Paul Maholm deadline deal.

Roster

Here's a rundown of the players not mentioned above:

Pedro Alvarez -- It wasn't surprising when Alvarez won the NL Rookie of the Month award in September because he gets better with experience wherever he plays. That bodes well for Alvarez in 2011, though he and several other Pittsburgh youngsters will need to be ready when big league pitchers adjust their approach. The husky third baseman hit 16 homers and drove in 64 runs in 95 big league games, totaling 29 dingers and 117 RBI between Triple-A and the Bucs. At times, he appeared overwhelmed in the big leagues, as evidenced by a 66 percent contact rate and 37:119 BB:K ratio at the plate along with a .938 fielding percentage and -6.2 UZR rating at third base. Fantasy owners who are looking for power, however, have come to the right place. Alvarez, combined with the short right-field porch at PNC Park, figures to put up the best power numbers Pittsburgh has seen in a long time. It's a coincidence Barry Bonds and Alvarez both hit 16 home runs as rookies, but the Bucs might have their most potent offensive weapon of the last 20 years at the hot corner. His ballyhooed winter weight issues should not affect his offense, but they're worth keeping tabs on.

Ronny Cedeno -- The Pirates re-signed Cedeno in the offseason but are open to alternatives at shortstop in 2011. Cedeno hit .256/.293/.382 with eight homers and 38 RBI in a career-high 468 at-bats, numbers that were as disappointing as they were inconsistent. Cedeno compiled unpredictable monthly batting average marks on the low range of .121 and .208 while also delivering marks of .329 and .295. Fantasy owners might do well to consider Cedeno as a waiver-wire pickup during his hot stretches as he's simply too inconsistent to count on regularly.

Pedro Ciriaco -- Acquired in the Chris Snyder deal last summer, Ciriaco's calling card is speed. The shortstop has stolen 143 bases in six minor league seasons. He has a glove that might play at the big league level, but his plate discipline needs work. Ciriaco compiled a 12:74 BB:K ratio at Triple-A in 2010. The 25-year-old middle infielder did see action in eight September games for Pittsburgh, going 3-for-6 with a double, triple and, yes, three strikeouts. The Bucs have no depth at shortstop in the upper minors, making it possible that Ciriaco gets recalled in the event of injuries. He could serve as a source of cheap steals from the waiver wire, but little else.

Jeffrey Karstens -- Karstens put an end to a few big-game slides by the Pirates in 2010, but his overall numbers tell the story of a pitcher struggling to find his way. The feisty right-hander registered a 4.92 ERA and a 1.410 WHIP in 122.2 innings for the Bucs. He was removed from Pittsburgh's 40-man roster following the 2009 campaign, but ended up re-signing with the organization. He'll likely serve as a spot starter and long reliever in 2011, giving him the same small amount of fantasy usefulness that he had in 2010. Still, it's not a bad way to make a living.

Andrew McCutchen -- When it comes to fantasy prowess, McCutchen represents the best Pittsburgh has to offer. In his first full season at the big league level, McCutchen put up a composite line of .286/.365/.449 with 16 homers and 56 RBI. He also finished 12th in the NL with 94 runs scored and fifth with 33 stolen bases (in 43 tries). The 24-year-old center fielder shows a decent eye at the plate (70:87 BB:K ratio), but tries to pull everything during slumps. His BABIP of .311 was strangely low, given his fantastic speed. There was talk that he played through a knee injury for much of the season, meaning that a healthy McCutchen might even do better in 2011.

Daniel McCutchen -- McCutchen might be the only pitcher ever to enter a game with a 14.73 ERA, throw 3.2 innings, and then leave with the exact same earned run average. That's the way his early season went, however, after outperforming Kevin Hart in spring training to win the team's No. 5 starter spot. It was thought that McCutchen could eventually take a regular turn in the rotation, but the control he showed in the minors never materialized with Pittsburgh. McCutchen holds a lifetime 3.51 K/BB minor league mark compared to a 1.46 K/BB ratio in 104 innings with the Bucs. His career 5.45 ERA and 1.538 WHIP accurately reflect how he's pitched in parts of two big-league seasons. As a result, it doesn't look like the right-hander will amount to anything more than a spot starter or long reliever.

Daniel Moskos -- Night and day aptly describes the differences between Moskos' performance at Double-A and Triple-A in 20I0. The Pirates used Moskos as a closer, where he's pitched consistently pitched with higher velocity than as a starter. He began the season on fire with Altoona, earning a midseason promotion to Indianapolis. At Triple-A, the lefty gave up 20 earned runs in 17.1 innings and served up a 2.690 WHIP. Sent back to Double-A before he lost all of his confidence, Moskos rebounded and finished with a 1.52 ERA, 1.022 WHIP and 21 saves. Most folks are afraid to go to the dentist's office, but for Moskos, the dental chair was located in Indianapolis last year. The Bucs protected him on their 40-man roster over the winter, meaning that he still fits into the organization's plans.

Ross Ohlendorf -- Ohlendorf got beaned in the head by a batted ball and struggled with a shoulder ailment, causing him to miss plenty of action in 2010. The Pittsburgh offense behind Ohlendorf failed to score four runs for him 26 straight times, the longest such streak since 1974. Limited to 108 innings, the Princeton-educated righty registered a 4.07 ERA, 1.385 WHIP and .260 BAA along with a 1-11 record that would've done Schleprock proud. If Ohlendorf can stay healthy and forgo an almost irrational urge to pick runners off at first base, he could rebound nicely in 2011. His heavy fastball has limited hitters to BABIPs of .265 and .290, respectively, in the last two seasons.

Lyle Overbay - Overbay will start every day at first base for the Bucs. Overbay's final season in Toronto last year was another mixed bag as he hit just .243 with 20 homers and 67 RBI. He's been a below-average option in most formats since his 2006 peak, though he may benefit a bit from the move to the NL.

Steven Pearce -- It finally looked like Pearce belonged in a major league uniform in 2010, at least until he suffered a high ankle sprain in May. After coming back from that injury, Pearce hurt his knee and subsequently underwent season-ending surgery. He was added to the Pirates' 40-man roster in the offseason, but where he stands within the organization is anyone's guess. Pearce batted .326/.424/.535 in 129 Triple-A at-bats, though he's had success in the high minors before. Space at first base and in the outfield is becoming more and more limited these days in Pittsburgh, and the right-handed Pearce will have to hope for a platoon at first base to get another crack in the majors.

Chris Snyder -- Snyder left Pittsburgh wanting more in his first go-around with the team in 2010. Perhaps coming over from the only team he ever played for, the Diamondbacks, made for a rough adjustment for the huge catcher. Whatever the case, Snyder's defense was mediocre, with the backstop dropping force outs at home that not even Ryan Doumit would miss. At the plate, his line of .169/.268/.298 in 124 at-bats was a bit more predictable for the all-or-nothing bat. At $6 million-plus in 2011, Pittsburgh has to hope that Snyder doesn't become the financial albatross that his occasional platoon partner now is. Fantasy owners looking for a 15-homer catcher with a .230 batting average have come to the right place.

Chris Resop -- The Pirates claimed Resop from Atlanta in August, and he surprised the organization with a moving fastball that consistently sat in the mid-90s. He ended up serving as an eighth-inning setup man until a sore elbow limited him to 1.1 innings after Sept. 16. In 22 games and 19 innings with Pittsburgh, Resop compiled a 1.89 ERA with a 1.053 WHIP and .156 BAA. The team thought enough of his late-season performance to place him on the 40-man roster. So long as Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek are in the Bucs' bullpen, the best Resop can hope for is a fair number of holds. Should anything happen to the late-inning pitchers, however, Resop might finagle himself a few saves.

Neil Walker -- Walker represented one of the biggest major league surprises in 2010. Flailing away in the minors since being drafted in the first round by Pittsburgh in 2004, time seemed to be running out on the switch-hitter. Combine a dismal 2009 showing with the Bucs - 7-for-35 with one double and no RBI - and it looked like the writing was on the wall. Fast forward to May 2010. Injuries struck the Pirates' infield, and GM Neal Huntington begrudgingly recalled Walker while dubbing him as the team's backup corner infielder. Thanks to Aki Iwamura's failure at second, Walker got a chance at a position he never played in the minors. He took to it like water and wound up giving the team a reliable infielder on both sides of the ball. The Pittsburgh native hit .296/.349/.462 with 29 doubles, 12 home runs and 66 RBI in 426 at-bats. A bulb went off in Walker's head last year, but it would be unwise banking on him as a sure thing, especially given that his career minor league line in seven years is just .273/.322/.441.

Top Prospects:

Jamison Taillon -- It's not likely the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft will be pitching in the big leagues for at least two or three years, but dynasty owners will want to consider adding him right away. Taillon comes out of high school with a fastball that sits around 94 mph and sometimes hits the high-90s. His ceiling is thought to be higher than any other hurler in last summer's draft, though time will tell. The Pirates are expected to start him out at Low-A West Virginia in 2011. Since he didn't sign until deadline day, the 6-foot-6 righty never pitched in the Bucs' organization, though he did take part in the Florida Instructional League. Taillon has drawn comparisons to Josh Beckett. Pittsburgh hasn't developed a front-line starter for many years but is hoping Taillon finally fits the bill.

Stetson Allie -- Teams shied away from Allie in the 2010 draft because of his apparent desire to attend college, but the Pirates plucked him in the second round and signed him for $2.25 million. Allie, who throws mid-90s heat on a consistent basis, prefers to close but Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington wants to see what he has in a starting role. Upon signing, Allie observed Low-A ball, but didn't play until the Florida Instructional League. It's likely that he'll begin the 2011 campaign at Low-A as he transitions from high school to life in professional baseball. Ultimately, Allie's role will determine how long it will take him to ascend through the system, and it's reasonable to think he won't see Pittsburgh until 2013 if he remains a starter.

Luis Heredia -- Heredia comes to the Pittsburgh organization as part of the elite pitching trio procured in 2010, along with Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie. Years away from maturing into a big league pitcher at just 16, Heredia was thought to be one of the top international free agent signings last summer. The 6-foot-6 right-hander throws in the mid-90s and the organization is hopeful he continues to get stronger as he ages and his body matures. Dynasty leaguers might want to jump on Heredia, but fantasy owners with short-term horizons can safely pass over the young Mexican hurler.

Starling Marte - Marte is a five-tool player who will start the 2011 season with Double-A Altoona. The outfielder hit .315/.386/.432 with 22 steals at High-A before missing time due to a hand injury.

Tony Sanchez -- Sanchez got hit in the head twice by pitches last season, breaking his jaw the second time. The 2009 first-round draft pick came back in time for the Arizona Fall League and hit four homers in 68 at-bats. His composite line of .206/.289/.397 must be tempered by the fact that he was just happy to be back playing after a rough five months. The 22-year-old right-handed hitting catcher is the heir apparent backstop to Chris Snyder in 2012. He's known more for his defense, such as framing pitches, but he's strung together decent offensive numbers (.312/.413/.494) in parts of two minor league seasons and 385 at-bats from rookie ball to High-A. The Pirates project Sanchez to get upwards of a full season in at Double-A, health permitting. Sanchez is the only decent catching prospect in the Pittsburgh organization and has a chance to hit somewhere around .280 with 20 homers and 80 RBI in the majors down the road.

Jeff Locke -- Locke is a 23-year-old lefty with a 90 mph fastball and off-speed pitches decent enough to miss bats. Acquired as part of the package for Nate McLouth in 2009, Locke compiled a 12-5 record with a 3.56 ERA and 1.146 WHIP split between High-A and Double-A in 2010. He also finished with an impressive 8.7 K/9IP and 139:26 K:BB ratio. Locke came up big in the Double-A playoffs, fashioning a 1.54 ERA in 11.2 innings en route to a championship. Nothing stands out in particular with Locke, but he gets the job done. He'll likely get his first shot pitching at the Triple-A level in 2011 and his performance there will go a long way toward determining whether he's another depth starter or a pitcher with fantasy-worthy potential.

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