Five questions: Pittsburgh Pirates

Last summer offered Pirates fans their first taste since 1997 of an extended winning period, and some degree of pennant fever. In the end, the Pirates suffered the ignominy of a professional record 20th consecutive losing season.

Given this taste of winning, most fans are in no mood for punting another season in a bid to restructure the roster. Realists concede 2012 might still be too early to expect a winning team, but are looking to see sustained progress toward being a contending team.

The biggest of the Pirates’ long term questions was answered last week when the team’s best player, center fielder Andrew McCutchen, was signed to a six-year contract extension for $51 million, with an option for a seventh year, which buys out two to three years of free agency. Despite a low 2011 batting average brought on by a second half slump, McCutchen’s solid on-base skills, increasing power and solid defense created a five-win season, second at his position in the National League to Matt Kemp.

Having suffered the losing streak, the Pirates have consistently selected among the top 10 in the amateur draft. The current administration of general manager Neil Huntington used a strategy of spending freely on these high draft picks to stock a farm system when it was deemed the Pirates could not compete for major league free agent talent. With the new collective bargaining agreement in place, that strategy may no longer be possible—even though the Pirates will select eighth in the coming draft, their allocated budget is only one third of what the team spent in each of the two previous drafts.

Therefore, the team may not be able to add more amateur talent in the mold of hitters Pedro Alvarez, Tony Sanchez, Alex Dickerson and Josh Bell and pitchers Gerrit Cole, Jaimeson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia, increasing the pressure to make a winning team with the players on hand.

To assist in my compilation of five questions for the Pirates, I asked my fellow readers of BucsDugout.com if they could give me their answers to questions I provided, and offer any additional questions of their own. By my selection and editing of their responses, this is less my opinion than sharing the thoughts of some of the most dedicated and knowledgeable Pirates fans.

How do the Pirates approach the revised draft rules?

The new draft budget caps have severely cut into the Pirates’ ability to spend on draft picks and international amateur players. In each of the past two years, the team selected a hard-to-sign high school player with huge talent upside at the top of the second round (pitcher Stetson Allie and outfielder Josh Bell), then threw money at the teenagers until they decided to forgo college and sign.

Each of those years saw the Pirates spend about $17 million on their draft picks. Selecting eighth this year, they will have only a little over $5 million to spend. It will be impossible for them to go over slot to a college-bound player, or to be able to sign two top picks to sizable bonuses. For the draft class as a whole, I expect the bonus restrictions will cause more players to go to college instead of the minors straight from high school.

Which Pedro Alvarez shows up in 2012?

Most forecasts, including THT’s, expect Alvarez to have a .240-.250 batting average with 25 to 30 home runs, but it could be just as likely he washes out as that he becomes a star. Even if he becomes the elite run producer that was hoped for when he was drafted, other young hitters such as right fielder Jose Tabata (who received a nine-year contract extension), second baseman Neil Walker and left fielder Alex Presley, all of whom the team has rewarded with starting roles, must step up above just league average performance.

Alvarez has the talent to be a top 10 third baseman, but to be a consistent winner the team must be able to put more than two top performers in the lineup. GM Huntington purchased some short term insurance for another Alvarez failure, acquiring Casey McGehee in a trade with Milwaukee, while outfielders Starling Marte and Robbie Grossman had breakout seasons in the minors last year. If Marte, a line drive hitter with a lack of plate discipline but developing power and stellar defense, continues to produce at Triple-A this year, and either Presley or Tabata falters, Marte would likely be up to take away one of their spots. Grossman, expected to open at Double-A, has a Nick Swisher skill set, in which he might produce a middling batting average while walking 100 times and knocking 20 to 25 home runs.

How about the pitching rotation?

Gerrit Cole and Jaimeson Taillon are expected to be heading the rotation in another year or two, with Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett being place-holders until then. How about the rest? Will Charlie Morton continue to improve on his 2011 makeover, was Jeff Karstens‘ season a mirage, and can the Pirates get at least one starter out of Jeff Locke, Brad Lincoln, Kyle McPherson, Rudy Owens and Justin Wilson?

Morton, along with Oakland’s Brandon McCarthy, attempted to remake himself the same way Roy Halladay did several years ago—using a power sinker to pound the strike zone and get as many grounders as possible. McCarthy regained his pinpoint control, while Morton struggled, especially early on, with keeping the movement in the strike zone.

Morton did drastically increase his ground ball rate while slashing his home run rate, becoming a reliable starter for the first time in his major league career. If he can throw strikes, I don’t se any reason why he can’t be an above-average starter for several years. Karstens is much more of a dice roll, a swing man who pitched to contact and only a year before had been left off the 40-man roster, but who suddenly had the batters hitting every ball right at someone, with virtually all of his long balls of the solo variety. Karstens has better control than Morton, but doesn’t throw nearly as hard and doesn’t keep the ball on the ground.

James McDonald is another young pitcher who has found some measure of success in a year and a half with the team, but appears to be at best a third starter. Besides the five pitchers mentioned who have spent time with the Pirates or in Triple-A, there are even more further down in the minors who were drafted as high school picks in lower rounds – Nick Kingham, Colton Cain, Zack Dodson, Zack Von Rosenberg and Clay Holmes all rank among the Pirates’ top 20 prospects, as do high-profile signees Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia.

Allie could end up a reliever, but that still leaves 11 quality prospects to fill two or three rotation spots over the next four to five years. The starting rotation does look like a very bright spot in the organization, something that has not been able to be said for over 20 years.

Can the new shortstop and catcher stabilize the lineup and contribute?

Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas were relatively cheap veteran free agents who were brought into fill the spots vacated by free agents Ronny Cedeno at short and Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder behind the plate. Both are place-holders, no better than those they replaced, well into their 30s with low ceilings and high risks of failure. Whereas McGehee was brought in to back up Alvarez in the case Alvarez continued to struggle, Barmes and Barajas might be the best the Pirates have at those two positions.

If Barmes works his way out of the lineup, next in line is Jordy Mercer, who reached Triple-A last year and led the system in home runs, although his total was only 19. Mercer actually possesses almost exactly the skill set that Barmes does—low batting average, few walks, some power with good defense. Barmes is making $10 million over two years while Mercer would make the minimum, but Barmes is the veteran and much more of a known quantity.

The Pirates’ top catching prospects behind Barajas are the 2009 first-round selection Tony Sanchez, who suffered offensively and defensively last year after doing well his first two seasons, and Eric Fryer, a former minor league batting champion with questionable defense. Sanchez will need a bounce-back season for the Pirates to regain confidence in his prospect status.

Really? No one has asked… is this the year the Pirates finally win 82+?

There is a fair chance. When I joined the Hardball Times Forecasts’ internal depth charts (where our stringers, who are experts on each team, make their predictions of individual playing time) with the player projections, the Pirates team forecast was -30 runs for batting, -10 for defense and -50 for pitching, leading to a Pythagorean projection of 71-91, tied with the Cubs for fourth in the division, ahead of the Astros. I’ll say .500 comes maybe in 2013, likely 2014, once the Pirates have a full season of Cole and Taillon in the rotation.

The entire thread at BucsDugout can be read here

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