Sunday, February 19, 2012

Could the Pirates Contend in 2012?

At some point this weekend, the Yankees and Pirates will formalize a trade that most prominently sends embattled starter AJ Burnett to Pittsburgh. Because of the obvious differences between the baseball markets in New York and Pittsburgh, media coverage of the trade has been overwhelmingly Yankee-centric, emphasizing New York's subtraction of an ineffective pitcher and its newfound payroll flexibility. But what about the Pirates—why would they make this deal?

At first I admit I was mystified; Pittsburgh can't expect to contend in 2012, so why is this small-market team interested in dealing for a fairly expensive player (the Pirates will pay Burnett $13 million over the next two years—probably more than he would have received as a free agent this offseason)? But then it dawned on me: maybe they do expect to contend in 2012.

You can bet that the Pirates brass hasn't forgotten last summer, when they were 51-44 and sitting on top of the NL Central on July 19 before the bottom fell out of their season. Perhaps motivated by this taste of success, the Pirates have been unusually active in the hot-stove league this offseason, having been linked to Roy Oswalt and Edwin Jackson (and snubbed by both despite sizable financial offers). They also offered arbitration to Derrek Lee, which demonstrated a willingness to commit up to $7 million to him for 2012, but (perhaps luckily for the Pirates) he didn't bite. This suggests that they believe that they are only a few key pieces away from true contention—and maybe that's not as far-fetched as it sounds.

Think about it. If the Pirates were in the American League, then yes, they'd stand no chance—there are too many dominant teams standing in their way. But the National League is significantly weaker, and with the likely addition of a second wild card this year, it's not at all clear who the favorites are. The NL Central, down a Pujols and a Fielder, is also relatively feeble this year. With the woeful Astros and the rebuilding Cubs, the worst the Pirates can do is probably fourth place. And while the world-champion Cardinals have to be considered the class of the division at this point, the Reds are coming off an underwhelming 79-83 season, while the Brewers will lack the meat of their 2011 lineup (remember that Ryan Braun is likely to miss 50 games due to failing a banned-substances test). It's possible that the Pirates' aggressiveness is because they see an opening.

Of course, relative standing matters little; a team shouldn't expect to reach the playoffs without at least 85 wins. Where the Pirates probably see those wins materializing is in their underrated rotation. With Burnett and fellow offseason acquisition Érik Bédard, the staff is now led by two veterans who have both had significant success in the past but who could not duplicate it on the big stage in New York or Boston. (Very smartly, Pittsburgh may have realized that players who cannot succeed in the spotlight are the newest market inefficiency—and one that, by definition, only they and other small-market teams can tap into.) Backing up the old hands are the Pirates' breakout youngsters of 2011, including James McDonald and Charlie Morton. Picture this rotation for Pittsburgh in 2012:

AJ Burnett
Not too long ago, Burnett was a reliable workhorse: he went 18-10 with a league-leading 231 strikeouts in 2008 and could boast a 114 ERA+ in 2009. His 2011 ERA of 5.15 hid a 3.86 xFIP, suggesting that a bounceback year is quite possible.

Érik Bédard
Known to be one of the game's most delicate hurlers, Bédard actually threw more innings in 2011 (129.1) than any year since his excellent 2007, when he led the league with 10.9 strikeouts per nine innings. When he does take the mound, he has always pitched well (his highest ERA since 2006 is 3.67).

Charlie Morton
Bet you didn't know that Morton delivered a 3.83 ERA in 29 starts for the 2011 Pirates; their brain trust likely sees him as a foundation to build off. (For the record, I am not a believer in Morton—he of the 1.43 K/BB ratio and extremely lucky 0.3 home runs per nine innings.)

James McDonald
On the flip side, McDonald figures to be significantly better than his pedestrian 2011 numbers (9-9, 4.21). Between April 27 and September 5, he went 9-5 with a 3.16 ERA and 120/58 K/BB ratio.

Jeff Karstens
When he's on, Karstens may be the best pitcher in this rotation. In June and July 2011, Karstens dominated the league with a 5-1 record and 1.77 ERA. His overall numbers were very good, too: a 113 ERA+, 1.21 WHIP, 1.8 walks per nine innings, and 5.3 strikeouts per nine innings (for those keeping score at home, that's a 2.91 K/BB ratio).

If anyone gets hurt (no small "if" in Bédard's case), Kevin Correia is ready to step in. Although his ERA ended the year at an ugly 4.79, the 2011 All-Star got off to a strong start with a 2.90 April. Unfortunately, his ERA got worse every month thereafter (4.15 in May, 4.46 in June, 6.08 in July, and 8.41 in August!); a bullpen role could keep his arm fresher throughout the season.

How do the Pirates stack up with other facets of their team? Not well, I'm afraid. They've made few changes to an offense that finished 27th in runs scored last season. However, a lot of baseball pundits are picking the Kansas City Royals to make major strides this season thanks to the development of some promising offensive pieces, and the same might be said about the Pirates—the team has high hopes for José Tábata and Alex Presley, while they also pray that Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones, and Casey McGehee can rediscover the talent that they flashed earlier in their careers. The potential is present, certainly, but a lot of things would have to break right for the Pirates to avoid a San Francisco Giants–esque fate (good pitching held back by a horrid offense).

Still, the Giants finished 86-76 with the 29th best offense in baseball last year. If the Pirates were to achieve a similar result in 2012, they would be ecstatic, because it would be the franchise's first winning season since 1992. It's the longest streak of losing seasons in American professional sports history—doubly sad because it has happened to a team with such a proud and storied history and to a city that has always been an excellent baseball town. Nowadays, Pittsburgh is in danger of losing that status; as its legacy of winning fades more and more into the past, its reputation for futility—and, to a degree, apathy about winning—has begun to lose it its respect in the baseball community. That shouldn't be, and while the Pirates aren't my team, I'll be rooting for them to do well this year.

But I'll be honest: While it's nice to see some effort and optimism come out of the Pirates front office, I don't think its on-field product will get even a whiff of October baseball this year. Will they be competitive? Maybe. The .500 mark seems like a high, but clearable, bar. Then again, that may be as high as the front office needs to reach in 2012. After wandering in the wilderness for so long, the Pirates simply need to regain their footing on the competitive landscape. A winning season, even if it falls 10 games short of a playoff berth, would reawaken Pittsburgh's dormant fan base and serve as a statement to players (both Pittsburgh's own and prospective free agents): "We're back." Very quietly, the current regime in Pittsburgh has made progress toward a return to respectability.

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