Hey, there's still lots of games to go before 2011 is in the dustbin of history. But so far it has shown how the Bucs have improved, and how far they have yet travel.
Next year's outfield will provide the wheels for the organization, and that should help ignite Clint Hurdle's go-go attack that worked pretty when McCutch, Alex Presley, Chase d'Arnaud and Josh Harrison were flying around the basepaths. Figure on a core trio for next season - McCutchen, Jose Tabata, and young Mr. Presley if he doesn't bomb in the last six weeks of the season.
We like Xavier Paul as a fourth OF'er even with his strikeout rate and baserunning antics; he provides a lot of fast-twitch off the bench. The fifth outfielder will be up for grabs - it could be Garrett Jones, flipping between first and right or Matt Diaz in year #2 of his contract, although his lack of power makes that iffy. Ryan Ludwick will have to impress to stay on the team beyond this season, and his time should diminish greatly when Tabata/Presley return.
The only guy in Indy that could challenge is Gorkys Hernandez, a possibility if Paul isn't kept. John Bowker has some pop, but he looks like a guy that's gonna come up short because of the lefties ahead of him; his stick is his only tool. Starling Marte is the future hope, but his ETA is more like 2013, not 2012, though he could break through later in the year.
The corner infield will feature Pedro at third, but first is an oracle's crystal ball call. Lyle Overbay is gone, and Derrek Lee is likely just a rental given his age and contract. Before the season, we foresaw a Garrett Jones/Steve Pearce platoon, but Pearce, after a second lengthy injury, will have to buy a four leaf clover farm to hold his roster spot this season. He's a player who has had success as a platoon player, but has problems serving a purely bench role, needing regular at bats to maintain his swing.
Matt Hague is tearing up Indy, but the Pirates rarely bring up a guy on one season's worth of AAA work, and old hopeful Jeff Clements is just returning to action after 2010 surgery, and so far just as a DH. That may be a spot the FO looks to shore up in the off season.
Depending on their long term view of Alvarez, they're going to have to get help from outside the organization for either first or third. Reserve strength should be OK; Brandon Wood is having a good second half and is versatile in the field, and Josh Harrison showed himself to be capable as a bench piece. Both have the added advantage of being able to man a middle spot, Wood at short and Jay Hay at second, in a pinch.
The middle infield is set with Neil Walker and Ronny Cedeno, if RC's frustrating streaks of sleep walking haven't turned off Clint Hurdle and company. The depth behind them is OK. Chase d'Arnaud doesn't look like the future at short, but he's a spark plug and can play third, short or second. We like Pedro Ciriaco, but Hurdle doesn't seem to share our view, and d'Arnaud can handle the job.
Jordy Mercer at Indy is flashing the ability to at least be considered in that mix, and a step behind him is Brock Holt at Altoona.
Then there's the catching. Mike McKenry looks like he's wrested the backup job away from Jason Jaramillo. JJ and Eric Fryer give them depth, although since it's Jaramillo's walk year (he's out of options in 2012), he may be gone from the mix next season. Tony Sanchez, after a pair of injury dogged seasons, is developing slowly and can't be considered a factor in 2012.
We know they were sniffing around during the deadline for various options behind the dish, and we expect them to keep digging in the off season. Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit are both free agents next season, and there are very slim odds of them returning not solely because of production v cost, but because they both have a long history of injuries. Ya can't make the club in a tub, as they say.
The starting pitching came around this year. They hit unsustainable levels during the first half of the season, but look as if they are capable of a staff ERA in the range of 4.00 - 4.25 or so, certainly not the Phillies or Braves, but respectable enough. Charlie Morton and J-Mac have some potential to improve, and Paul Maholm and Kevin Correia should be steady. Jeff Karstens is the wildcard (can he repeat?), Ohlie will be back, and Anthony Watson may be stretched out to become a starter again.
But the staff is not very deep - Brad Lincoln is the only arm that may be able to make the leap next year as Rudy Owens, Justin Wilson and the Altoona rotation have all hit a wall. It also lacks a true top-of-the-order pair, as became obvious during the recent tailspin. The difference makers in the minors are nowhere near sniffing the show yet.
And there are two big questions looming; is Karstens for real and will the FO keep Maholm? No matter how the Pirates go about putting together a 2012 rotation, we believe there will be some off season activity to continue to upgrade the staff.
The bullpen is a different story; it's shined up until the past four series, finally worn down by the workload and role-shifting a trio of extra inning games and some abbreviated starts caused. The FO has shown a pretty good eye for building a pen, and 2012 should be no different. They may look for one quality bridge arm and another lefty, especially if Watson starts again, to add depth.
They do have a couple of quality arms at Indy; Chris Leroux and Tim Woods both have stood out, and Danny Moskos didn't look out of place in his trip to Pittsburgh..
The Bucs are still a team in transition, and the minor leagues haven't been fast-tracking many folk to fill in the gaps yet, thanks to a high-school heavy draft history and some misses on player evaluations. But there have been enough successes to begin to right the ship.
This off season, the FO should be looking at adding a couple of pieces to the puzzle - a corner player, catcher, starter, and set-up guy should be high on the list. We also look for them to mold themselves more around a NL model of speed and contact to give Hurdle the style of players he's most comfortable with managing.
They took a step this year, and still have a few more to take before the end of the road. But improving they are, and hopefully 2012 will be the year they can hang in the Central because of talent instead of grit.