Friday, May 18, 2012

Pellas on the Pirates: The Pirates at the Quarter Pole, or, How to Hang Around, Improbably

The late Sparky Anderson always used to say that he never drew any conclusions about any of the teams he managed until they had played 40 games, or a quarter of a season. In keeping with that wisdom,and because the Bucs have now competed in 38 contests in 2012, I figure we're close enough to the "quarter pole" to draw some conclusions about the latest edition of the Nutting Era Pirates.

Let's start with the positive: this team's pitching is legitimately good. Maybe even contender good, if by some miracle the current pace can be sustained. I say "miracle" because it will surely take something not far from supernatural intervention to keep any number of Pirate pitchers' arms from falling off given how badly the bullpen has already been abused.

But it's hard to argue with the results. The 2012 pitching staff has been at or near the top of the heap among all major league teams right from the get go. A special nod here must be given to both Erik Bedard and to the man who signed him, General Manager Neal Huntington.

Bedard is certainly one of the better lefthanded starting pitchers in the game on the rare occasions when his broken-down body feels like cooperating. He's also that rare southpaw who is capable of high strikeout numbers. Bringing him in was an astute move by Huntington, even if Bedard would never have come to Pittsburgh had he been remotely healthy in recent years and thus not in need of a port in a storm. Credit Huntington, though, for making the right read on Bedard's circumstances and for moving quickly to sign him.

Another Huntington acquisition, James McDonald, has been lights out and looks to be building toward a career year. He took a no-hitter into the sixth inning in his most recent start. Charlie Morton made it back more quickly than expected from off season hip surgery, and while he hasn't been great, he has been closer to last season's breakout than to the 2010 implosion that nearly sank his career.

A. J. Burnett, despite a currently-unsightly 5.12 ERA, has been much better than that with the lone exception of one horrendous (probably career worst) start. Even fifth starter Kevin Correia hasn't been bad, though he will presumably be bumped to the 'pen once manager Clint Hurdle decides to give resurgent Brad Lincoln a regular spot in the rotation and/or when Jeff Karstens makes it back from his early season shoulder injury.

The relievers haven't been as spectacular as the starters - and it says here that closer Joel Hanrahan may have peaked over the first half of last season and he's looked a lot more like a mere mortal ever since - but by and large they have been reliable and effective. Grizzled veterans Jason Grilli and Juan Cruz in particular have come through in a number of high pressure situations, usually with multiple strikeouts. Grilli and Cruz are "journeymen" by any other name, but you wouldn't know it from their effectiveness while wearing black and gold.

Unfortunately, there's the hitting, or rather, the complete and total lack of hitting outside of Andrew McCutchen. Consider that the Pirates have somehow managed 18 wins in 38 contests with the worst "offense" in all of American professional baseball as of a couple of weeks ago. You read that right, folks. Your Pirates are the single worst outfit wearing major OR minor league threads when it comes to scoring runs.

There are numerous culprits. Everyone knew coming into the season that the starting outfielders, particularly the corner outfielders, had considerably less over the wall power than most teams typically field.

However, there was also reason for optimism: both projected starters, right fielder Jose Tabata and left fielder Alex Presley, were "four tool" types in the minors, both had shown lots of ability other than over the wall power, and it was frankly kinda cool to see a couple of 1970s throwbacks bringing some old school National League style back to Pittsburgh. In other words you don't necessarily need to hit lots of home runs if you're doing literally everything else, and both Tabata and Presley appeared to be more than capable of playing that style and playing it well.

Alas, Tabata had an ice cold start and Presley fell into a 3-for-42 tailspin that landed him all the way back down to Triple A. Tabata seems to have turned it on in recent weeks, but has still looked more like a good fourth outfielder than a legitimate starter, overall.

Fan favorite Nate McLouth, brought back to Pittsburgh as insurance in the event that Tabata or Presley failed, has looked...well, finished. He's done absolutely nothing with the opportunity that presented itself when Presley failed. Garrett Jones still has his moments, but his game is what it is: brief stretches of unconscious power hitting followed by much longer stretches of complete futility coupled with mediocre outfield defense.

Turning to the infield, Casey McGehee, brought in via trade from the Brewers last offseason, hasn't hit for power or for average and has fallen near the Mendoza Line. Pedro Alvarez, despite an impressive power surge in April, is not out of the woods yet, himself, and he's done nothing for the past two to three weeks.

Neil Walker looks to me like he has stagnated. His modest power seems to have disappeared, and he's not hitting for enough of an average to compensate. Prior to this season, he was said in some quarters to be headed for a multi-year extension as the next building block in the ongoing team rebuilding project. But he's done nothing with the stick in 2012 to show that the team should invest in him that way, though his glovework has been impressively and unexpectedly pretty good for a guy who is really playing out of position when you get right down to it.

Veteran catcher Rod Barajas, whose defense and game-calling has been a welcome relief from previous starter Ryan Doumit's butchery, has finally started to turn it around recently after a horrendous start with the bat. As advertised, he does have power, but he still has just 5 RBI for the season. That's "five", as in, "one more than four".

Then there's shortstop Clint Barmes. Barmes has been benched for several games recently in favor of utility man Josh Harrison, and deservedly so, even though Harrison really can't play shortstop. Barmes was brought in as a presumed upgrade over previous starter Ronnie Cedeno, and he had a respectable resume. Unfortunately he has looked all but helpless at the plate, and his struggles have been so great that they've overshadowed his consistently pretty good defense, which is saying something.

While there's still time for him to prove otherwise, it's hard to escape the conclusion that Barmes' career is in jeopardy. He'll get plenty of chances because the Pirates don't really have a viable alternative in the upper minors, where athletic Chase d'Arnaud can run but not play baseball so well, and steadier Jordy Mercer appears to have a limited ceiling.

Rarely has a team had such contrast between its pitching and defense on one side and its hitting, or total lack of it, on the other. If not for Andrew McCutchen's incredible start, the Pirates might have fielded the worst offense in the live ball era over the first six weeks of 2012.

And yet, here they are, hanging around in the NL Central, just a few games back at the quarter pole. Improbable, yes, but the opportunity for this team to make some noise in the division is definitely there. The Cubs and Astros are rebuilding. The Brewers and Cardinals have fallen back to the pack after significant offseason personnel losses. The Reds are decent but hardly imposing.

Assuming the pitching holds up, a couple of productive veteran bats could make a real difference for the Pirates and might even make them at least wild card contenders this season. On the other hand, if the players currently on the roster play to their career norms over the remainder of the year, there might be enough improvement from within to make things interesting, or at least, interesting enough for the front office to decide to hold onto its kids rather than trade some to get some hitting.

For now, the Pirates are better than bad, but worse than good. Probably a little below the middle of the pack overall, though with the asterisk that they appear to have a pitching staff that is considerably better than that. The question is whether to go out and get some hitting from outside the organization, or take the rest of the 2012 season to answer some lingering questions and see where we are next year.

(Will Pellas is a regular contributor to the Green Weenie, and today gives us his tout sheet as the Bucs come out of the first turn.)

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