Friday, April 6, 2012

Buc Preview

OK, the Bucs have remodeled their 2012 edition. Just eleven guys remain from the 2011 opening day roster (twelve if you count Charlie Morton, currently on the DL), so it's a new team for a new season.

The Pirate starting staff is improved with the additions of Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett, although it still lacks a top end ace. Depth is a little better, too, with Brad Lincoln, Jeff Locke and some other arms available to fill the bottom end of the rotation when called upon, although the big arms are still in A ball. This season's question is whether Jeff Karstens, Charlie Morton and James McDonald can become consistent starters.

None of the trio has made 80 career MLB starts yet; J-Mac has only 47 under his belt. So we'd expect that they'll still have their ups and downs, but last season's workload should help smooth out the rough spots. All in all, it's a much more upside group than the gang entering 2011 was, and should perform better.

The bullpen is still a little fluid. Hanny gave every indication in the spring that he's ready to repeat his breakout 2011 season, and Jason Grilli looked solid, too. If Juan Cruz and Evan Meek can fill in as bridge arms, the relief corps should be capable of holding up their end of the deal. It would help if the starters can get past the sixth inning a few more times, too.

The fielding is more solid this year. The outfield, catching and shortstop are all well represented with leather, and Neil Walker showed great improvement in his first full year at second, although his size probably limits his fielding potential to average rather than Golden Glove quality.  The corner infield is going to have to earn its daily bread with their sticks.

But, ah, those sticks. If the Pirates are to improve their attack, it'll be due to young guys maturing rather than any outside help. The offense will be generated by the top of the lineup - Alex Presley, Jose Tabata, McCutch and Walker. While McCutch has room to grow and Walker has been consistent, the verdict is still out on Presley and Tabata.

Tabata seems the surer bet to get on base. Although his average dropped from .299 in 2010 to .266 last year, his OBP over the two years has been .345+. Presley has had problems with lefties, and although his .293 BA and .333 OBP are solid, he has under 250 MLB at-bats. So this will be his first full year in the fire.

This is one spot that the Pirates could see some mid-season help. If Starling Marte can improve his discipline at the dish at Indy and keep raking like he did in camp, the uberprospect could land in Pittsburgh this summer and add a little pop to the punch-and-judy corner outfield.

The top four will generate the bulk of the Pirate production this year. After cleanup hitter Walker (who in an ideal world would be the six hitter), the Bucco batters don't sport a man that averaged .250 at the plate in 2011. One advantage they do have is that several of them have some long ball potential to offset the low averages a bit.

Of the six players likely to hold down those lineup spots - Garrett Jones, Casey McGehee, Rod Barajas, Pedro Alvarez, Clint Barmes and Mike McKenry - only two had an OBP over .300 (Jones - .321, Barmes - .312) last season.

While we're not sure how the bench will shake out this year until Morton and AJ Burnett return, it should give Clint Hurdle more options when some lumber is needed, and the ability to match up in some platoon situations, as everyone currently on the pine save McKenry can offer a fair fight at the plate.

Pittsburgh is also better situated to deal with injuries this season. After so many troopers fell last year, the Pirates roster became a revolving door, and Indy is filled with guys who spent some time in the show last season.

If the Pirates can avoid a soul-sapping slow start - and their bats will be sorely challenged by the pitching they'll see in the first couple of weeks of the season - better pitching and fielding and a weaker division should lead the hitting challenged club to a six game improvement over 2011, good for 78 wins and one step closer to shedding their star-crossed past.

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