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2012 Pirates Preview: Pirates 2012: 19 Years and Counting

John Toperzer

John Toperzer

John Toperzer writes about fantasy sports for RotoWire.

2012 Pittsburgh Pirates Team Preview

It will be hard to top 2011, a season in which the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat sent Pirates fans on a rollercoaster of emotions. All-Stars Kevin Correia, Joel Hanrahan and Andrew McCutchen helped lead the Bucs to a 53-47 mark through July 25. Then came the heartbreak of another bitter loss in Atlanta; this one 19 seasons after Francisco Cabrera and Sid Bream conspired to end a Pirates World Series run.

Umpire Jerry Meals inexplicably called the Braves' Julio Lugo safe at home in the 19th inning Tuesday, July 26, giving Atlanta a late-night win (1:50 am Eastern) while sending Pittsburgh into a tailspin of epic proportion. While #JerryMealsSaysItsSafe became a popular Twitter hashtag in Pittsburgh, the Pirates never recovered from the defeat. From July 26, the Bucs lost 43 of their final 62 games, finishing 72-90.

Optimists will point toward a starting rotation that matched its career innings around the time the team fell apart. Pessimists will look at the historic collapse and simply chalk things up to another one of 19 consecutive losing seasons.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between. The composition of the 2012 Pirates will be somewhat different with a new catcher (Rod Barajas), shortstop (Clint Barmes) and corner infielder (Casey McGehee). But the young core remains the same. A rebound from Pedro Alvarez would go a long way toward bringing Pittsburgh respectability.

There are fantasy commodities worth investing in on the Bucs, something that can't always be said. Single-season and keeper leagues will want to keep a close eye on the organization that now includes the likes of Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, Josh Bell and Starling Marte, among others.

Offseason Moves:

Traded for third baseman Casey McGehee.

McGehee's .249 BABIP figures to rebound in 2012, as does his .223 batting average. The former Cub and Brewer has reportedly shed 15-20 pounds and is expected to platoon with Garrett Jones at first base and back up Pedro Alvarez at third. He represents a solid buy-low risk at a position (third base) with scant depth.

Signed Nate McLouth to a one-year contract.

The outfielder flopped with Atlanta after the Pirates traded him for Charlie Morton, Gorkys Hernandez and Jeff Locke in 2009. The Bucs plan on using him as their fourth outfielder, backing up all three spots. An injury or protracted slump by any of the starters could move McLouth into a starting role. His career .816 OPS at PNC Park is bettered only by numbers in Wrigley Field (.980) in far fewer at-bats. The Bucs can only hope he rekindles some of the magic that led him to an All-Star campaign in 2008, but he hasn't shown the same ability since leaving Pittsburgh.

Signed shortstop Clint Barmes to a two-year contract.

Barmes instantly became Pittsburgh's highest-paid player when he signed a two-year, $10.5 million deal in October. Barmes is a Clint Hurdle man, dating back to their days with the Rockies. The 32-year-old shortstop was fortunate to receive a rare multiyear deal over the winter, considering a slash line of .244/.312/.386 in 123 games with Colorado. Whether he's worth it remains to be seen. His numbers have declined since 2009.

Signed catcher Rod Barajas to a one-year catcher.

Barajas will make $4 million with Pittsburgh in 2012. The Pirates are hoping for 120 games from the 36-year-old catcher who served as Clayton Kershaw's personal backstop in 2011. He averaged 107 games the last four seasons, hitting about .250 with double-digit home runs. The team is looking for Barajas to man the fort while prospect Tony Sanchez continues to learn the trade in the minors.

Declined club options on pitcher Paul Maholm and catchers Ronny Cedeno, Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder, totaling $24.55 million.

The Pirates passed on Maholm's $9.75 million option and showed no interest in keeping him around, regardless of cost. Manager Clint Hurdle seemed to bench Cedeno once a week and was not satisfied with the shortstop's mental lapses. Despite putting up the best numbers of his career, Doumit missed another half season with a fractured ankle. Snyder, meanwhile, struggled with back woes that led to surgery and limited him to 34 games.

Projected Lineup/Rotation:

Lineup (vs.RH/LH)

1.Alex Presley LF/Jose Tabata RF
2.Jose Tabata RF/Alex Presley LF
3.Andrew McCutchen CF
4.Neil Walker 2B
5.Garrett Jones 1B/Casey McGehee 1B
6.Pedro Alvarez 3B/Josh Harrison 3B
7.Clint Barmes SS
8.Rod Barajas C

Presley, Tabata and McCutchen provide speed atop the lineup. Walker is not a prototypical cleanup hitter, but fills the roll better than others on the roster. At first and third, look for McGehee to spot start based on matchups. Harrison is a bit of a reach at third base, but McGehee can't play both first and third against lefties. Harrison carried a woeful .656 OPS (.593 vs. lefties) in 195 at-bats, but the Pirates have no one better.

Rotation:

1.Erik Bedard
2.Jeff Karstens
3.James McDonald
4.Kevin Correia/Charlie Morton
5.Brad Lincoln/Jeff Locke

Bedard represents the best swing-and-miss starter on the staff. Karstens might start the opener as a reward for past work. Bedard is a huge injury risk, Correia was shut down early with shoulder woes and Morton is coming back from off-season hip surgery. McDonald probably has the best upside on the staff. Lincoln pitched decently in September while Locke stumbled in his first major league look.

CL: Joel Hanrahan

Hanrahan went from a spring training closer hopeful to All-Star in 2011. Despite an inconsistent slider, the hard-throwing righty made short work of opponents with a fastball typically sitting 95-6 mph. His brilliant campaign slowed, as did the Pirates' surprising run, after July. Hanrahan compiled a 3.40 ERA and 1.42 WHIP in August and September. Still, Pittsburgh would be lucky to have every position nailed down as tightly as it does at the closer position. If Hanrahan got hurt, an unappealing closer-by-committee unit would likely include Jason Grilli, Juan Cruz, Chris Resop and perhaps Tony Watson from the left side.

Notes of import, fantasy or otherwise

Can the Pirates count on Pedro Alvarez to be "all in?"

Fragile doesn't typically describe 6-foot-3, 230-pound baseball players, but the term aptly fits the 2011 model of Alvarez. His plate coverage was poor, his pitch selection was even worse, but the majority of his problems stemmed from between his two ears. Alvarez worked hard to re-shape his body in the offseason and displayed a new attitude at team functions such as PirateFest. Manager Clint Hurdle said Alvarez tried to please everyone last year and fell off track. Hurdle will give the first-round draft pick the first crack at the hot corner, but Casey McGehee (who will also see time at first) is waiting as insurance. Alvarez never really struggled in his career prior to 2011, when he put up a .191/.272/.289 line in 235 at-bats. Whether he fulfills his massive potential remains to be seen, but it's way too early to write him off, especially at a fantasy position void of depth.

Who starts at first base?

Derrek Lee gave the Pirates a taste of professional play at first base in 2011. Barring a change of heart, Lee doesn't appear interested in coming back. As a result, the Bucs are expected to go with a lefty/righty platoon of Garrett Jones and Casey McGehee. Jones is an extremely streaky hitter who'll put together three equally good and bad weeks back-to-back. McGehee slumped to a .223 batting average courtesy of a .249 BABIP, 41 points below his career average. Interestingly, the former Brewer has a lifetime split average of .261 (vs. lefties)/.266 (vs. righties). Matt Hague could make a dent at first if the Bucs decide to dig into their system. Hague, 25, has made a steady ascent up the organizational level. He doesn't hit for a ton of power, but holds a career slash line of .304/.371/.446 and a 218:298 BB:K ratio.

How does the starting pitching stack up?

With the exception of Paul Maholm, Pittsburgh's rotation figures to stay mostly intact for 2012. James McDonald, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia and Charlie Morton return. Perhaps the biggest wild card is Erik Bedard, who the Pirates signed as a free agent. Bedard, 33, moves from the American League to the Senior Circuit, a move that typically benefits pitchers. He's battled injuries throughout his career but posted a 2.82 ERA as recently as 2009. It wouldn't be shocking to pitch well for a portion of the season before getting hurt. McDonald has another year of experience under his belt. He throws too many pitches and has trouble getting past six innings, but the swing-and-miss repertoire is there for another step forward, from a fantasy perspective. Karstens, Correia and Morton all battled injuries during the season's second half. Morton might miss time in the early going after offseason hip surgery.

Can anyone hit around here?

The departure of Lee leaves the Pirates without a true middle-of-the-order thumper. For the Pirates, the sum has not been greater than the parts. Fortunately, fantasy owners can be choosy about which players they acquire. McCutchen hit just .216 after the All-Star break and his OPS dropped from .894 to .722. The center fielder says he was simply pressing because of the team's struggles and it's hard to argue with that line of reasoning. Neil Walker is not a typical cleanup hitter, but he'll likely serve in that role again. The switch-hitter's 83 RBI ranked fifth among all MLB second basemen. Jose Tabata got off to a strong April but couldn't stay healthy. He's a 10 HR/20 SB threat. Fantasy owners would be thrilled with a .300 batting average and 30 steals from Alex Presley. There's a chance that happens, so long as the small-bodied outfielder doesn't wear down.

Strengths:
An emerging young core (McCutchen, N. Walker, Tabata, Presley), top prospects in the lower minor league levels (Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, Josh Bell) and a solid closer (Joel Hanrahan).

Weaknesses:
The team has no ace, no full-time first baseman and an ownership that has yet to demonstrate the ability to spend money locking up players such as McCutchen. The team has few offensive prospects in the upper minor leagues (aside from Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman).

Rising:
Alex Presley Pittsburgh thought it was simply rewarding an organizational depth guy when it brought Presley to the majors in September 2010. It turns out that Presley might have been deserved the promotion all along. The left-handed hitting outfielder hit .330 in 348 Triple-A at-bats before the Bucs recalled him for an interleague play stint. Presley responded with two or more hits in nine of his first 17 games. A nerve issue in his left thumb sidelined him for the next month and he hit only .276 the rest of the way, compiling an overall slash line of .298/.339/.465 in 215 at-bats. Pirates general manager Neal Huntington said in the offseason that Presley enters 2012 as the team's starting left fielder, but Nate McLouth could force his way into the picture. A good season by Presley would see the 5-9 left fielder hit .300 with 10-plus homers and 20 or more stolen bases. He'll get an opportunity to establish himself, but won't get much margin for error with McLouth and prospects Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman waiting in the wings.

Falling:
Rod Barajas The Pirates are looking for 120 games out of the 37 year old and that just might be a little too much to ask. Barajas continued his "one-trick pony" ways, batting just .230/.287/.430 in 2011, but contributing 16 home runs in 305 at-bats. For his career, Barajas is a .238 hitter and certainly won't steal bases (two his entire career), but over the past three seasons, he's been good for one long ball per 20 at-bats. Barajas takes his talents to Pittsburgh this year where he'll serve as the Pirates' starting catcher until prospect Tony Sanchez is ready.

Sleeper:
Brad Lincoln Lincoln was Pittsburgh's second best pitcher in September. He salvaged his 2011 campaign with a late push toward respectability once he joined the Bucs rotation in late August. In seven starts, he allowed three or fewer runs six times and shut out the World Champion Cardinals on Aug. 27. Lincoln, who registered a 4.72 ERA and 1.469 WHIP in 47.2 frames for the Pirates, isn't guaranteed a spot in the rotation. It's quite possible he starts in Triple-A and serves as an early-season recall. He hasn't panned out as the potential frontline pitcher Pittsburgh had hoped for when it drafted him fourth overall in 2006, but there's still a chance he develops into a serviceable major league starter. He'll get another shot in 2012.

Supersleeper:
Starling Marte Although injuries are probably the only way Marte plays at PNC Park before September, he has the skillset worth tracking all season. Marte made his Double-A debut in 2011 to the tune of a .332/.270/.500 slash line in 536 at-bats. Coming off a broken hamate bone in 2010, Marte showed a bit of the power (12 homers) that makes him the closest prospect Pittsburgh has to a five-tool talent. The 22-year-old righty hit 38 doubles, eight triples, stole 24-of-36 bags and hit .332. Marte lacks plate discipline (22:100 BB:K ratio) and it will be interesting to see how he fares against Triple-A pitching. Oddly, he hit .346 against righties (in 405 at-bats) and .288 (in 125 at-bats) versus lefties.

Top Prospects

Gerrit Cole - Time will tell whether the Pirates made the right move selecting Cole first overall in the 2011 draft, but his good size, downward plane and right-handed delivery dovetail perfectly with the profile of general manager Neal Huntington's ideal starting pitcher. The 6-foot-4 power hurler hit 100 mph regularly in the Arizona Fall League and offers a plus slider and changeup. Cole never put up dominating numbers at UCLA and was actually outpitched by fellow first-round pick Trevor Bauer. His pedigree dates to high school, however, when he was selected in the first round by the Yankees in 2008. Pittsburgh does not typically advance prospects quickly, making it unlikely that Cole sees the major leagues until 2013, at the earliest.

Luis Heredia - The Pirates treated their baby-faced 17-year-old with kid gloves in his 2011 pro debut, restricting his longest outing to four innings (in 11 starts). His fastball already sits in the low-90s as the team works to refine his mechanics and secondary pitches. It wouldn't be surprising to see the 6-foot-6 righty spend another season in rookie ball. He's a top prospect in keeper leagues that allow owners to stash players for upward of three or four seasons.

Jameson Taillon - Taillon's numbers might not reflect his effectiveness because the organization instructed him to command his fastball at the risk of whiffing hitters with breaking balls. Once the Bucs are comfortable with his control, the kid gloves will come off and his repertoire will be in full effect. Taillon pitched well in his professional debut for Low-A West Virginia, compiling a 3.98 ERA and 1.215 WHIP in 92.2 innings. More impressively, he put up a 97:22 K:BB ratio. Taillon will test his stuff at High-A Bradenton with a possible promotion to Double-A Altoona by summer's end. He's a cerebral pitcher who might be overshadowed by 2011 No. 1 pick, Gerrit Cole, but his future appears extremely bright. He could be pushing for a spot in Pittsburgh's rotation by 2013.

Josh Bell - Bell entered the 2011 draft as a player with immense power who seemed bent on foregoing the draft to enter college. His mother is a university professor, but the lure of first-round money at pick No. 61 proved to be too much for the switch-hitter to pass up. Bell immediately becomes the best power prospect in the Pirates system. He's thought to be average at best defensively, but has a chance to move up quickly an offensively-challenged organizational ladder. His second-round, $5 million contract would've never happened under the new CBA, but Bell gives the small market Bucs a chance to cash in on a player who was universally ranked as a first-round talent.

Robbie Grossman - Grossman provided the Arizona Fall League with one of its most electric performances (hitting .375/.472/.625 in 26 games) before breaking his hamate bone. During the 2011 campaign, the switch-hitting outfielder compiled a slash line of .293/.418/.450 in 134 games with High-A Bradenton. He scored 127 runs, strung together a 104:111 BB:K ratio and swiped 24 bases in 34 attempts. Grossman, who is expected to move up to Double-A for the first time, figures to be ready for spring training - with the caveat that his power might initially suffer due to his hand injury. A strong start could push him to Pittsburgh by September, but he's still behind the likes of Starling Marte in the pecking order. His plate discipline alone gives him a chance to find regular work in the big leagues.