Home > All-Star Game, MLB, Stats > The Pittsburgh Pirates are Pretty Perfectly Positioned for First Place Push

The Pittsburgh Pirates are Pretty Perfectly Positioned for First Place Push

If you’re the front office of the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals, Oakland Athletics, or San Diego Padres, you may want to pull out your notebook, and start taking notes.  It’s the Pittsburgh Pirates who have become the example for winning baseball games on a budget.

Since its inception in 1994, the NL Central division has not been kind to the Pittsburgh Pirates.  This is remarkable, really.  We’re talking about the NL Central.  The Pirates were run into the ground for the first twelve years of the NL Central division, and it’s still incredible they didn’t make the postseason.  The freakin’ 1998 Cubs made the playoffs.  That wasn’t a good team at all.  The Pirates have been more than just a bad team, but they’ve failed to reach levels of hilarity that would have made watching their losses entertaining.  They’ve been an attraction best defined by their ballpark.

The fact that the NL Central has lined up in such a way that two of the six teams are among the worst in baseball is hardly surprising.  In fact, if you lent any credence to the preseason previews, it’s actually not that surprising that the Pirates aren’t at the bottom of the division this all star break.  However, any spectacular achievement in the first half driven by a quality, young offensive group was certain to be drowned out by a pitching staff which entered the season hoping to be just good enough to sell off a part or two at the trade deadline.  But at the all-star break, the Pirates pitchers have been worth so much more to them than that this season.

When you look at the teams that are truly struggling this year, listed in order above, but also including the Minnesota Twins, Houston Astros, and Chicago Cubs, bad teams have struggled on the run prevention side of the baseball equation.  This is where the Pirates were projected to struggle, but their 345 runs allowed is in the upper half of all of baseball and perfectly matches their much sustainable 345 runs scored this year.

If .500 is the true talent of the 2011 Pirates, then there’s reason to believe that they aren’t overachieving much.  The Pirates pitching rotation has been unable to find a true strikeout threat between Paul Maholm, Jeff Karstens, and Kevin Correia, but only Correia is truly struggling to strike out batters.  This is reflected in his results: a pedestrian 4.01 ERA at the all-star break.  Perhaps, though, the current depressed run environment actually favors the sustainability of the Pirates’ staff.  Their one below average starter is also the team’s strikeout leader, James McDonald.  McDonald struggles with putting too many guys on and had a flyball tendency.  Even in the current environment, his 4.42 ERA plays as a fifth starter.

If this was an article about how suprising the Pittsburgh Pirates are, I’d write about Charlie Morton here.  But this is an article about the chances that the Pirates push for first place deep into September, and I think that Morton best represents the amount of depth the Pirates have created themselves.  If this team actually does make the playoffs, Morton doesn’t figure to be part of the playoff rotation.  He lacks the raw power (and lack of command) of McDonald, and isn’t as well regarded as Correia, Maholm, or Karstens.  But his 5.3 K/9 rate could help him pass for other pitchers in the Pirates rotation.

The competitive advantage of this team is that it is deep for a low-budget operation.  The bullpen has six different guys having strong years — led by fireballing closer Joel Hanrahan — and can hope for a seventh when they get last year’s all-star Evan Meek back from the DL.  They can also go to that bullpen early in games because the arms are as young as they are talented, and they’ve been there for the Pirates as they’ve been needed.

The offense has not progressed according to plan, exactly.  The Pirates entered the season ahead of the game at catcher, but both Chris Snyder and Ryan Doumit have been hurt this year and neither has been much defensively when they’ve been behind the plate anyway.  Nobody in baseball likes homegrown Neil Walker’s defense at second base, but his 84 hits would lead a couple of teams at the break.  They don’t lead the Pirates, however, because the Pirates have Andrew McCutchen, a five tool prospect and budding superstar who is my pick for NL MVP at the midway point over Jose Reyes.  Opponents appear to be lost on this “McCutchen is the most dangerous player in the NL” thing because he’s been intentionally walked just once this season.  I suppose that’s understandable, because as much as teams should be fearing his bat, they are fearing what his speed on the basepaths can do to change a game.  McCutchen, who has reached base 149 times this year, has stolen 15 bases while being caught only five times.

The Pirates have issues they need to upgrade on the left side of the infield, where they’ve received sub-par performances from Ronny Cedeno as SS (which was expected) and the recently demoted Pedro Alvarez at 3B (they had hoped for better).  They have some options here on the trade market as buyers.  The Royals are looking to deal Wilson Betemit and have Mike Aviles sitting in AAA right now, and it wouldn’t be that hard for the Pirates to put together a package that lands both of them.  Even though the Indians are in the midst of a playoff run, they’d probably be willing to deal Jack Hannahan for a C+ pitching prospect.  Greg Dobbs of the Marlins could also be a target.

Unless they make a package deal with a team like the Royals, the Pirates are likely to simply sit on Ronny Cedeno at shortstop.  Cedeno isn’t a good player, but he has a strong defensive reputation, and UZR bears out his good glovework this season.  If the Bucs would consider moving Walker to third base for the rest of this season, Alexi Casilla of the Twins could be a smart pickup.  Problem there is you’re moving one of your lineup staples into a spot where he is blocking a top prospect (Alvarez).  Mark Teahen of the White Sox could be another solution.

The Pirates’ solutions to their problems could define their road to the playoffs because the main competition, the Milwaukee Brewers, have the same left side of infield needs.  The truth is though the wisest moves the Pirates could make is simply to focus on increasing the value of their roster taking advantage of a buyers market and trying to find good players at any position.  Really, in terms of building a team for the future, the only untouchable in terms of losing a job is McCutchen.  And that shouldn’t limit the Pirates options at all.

They shouldn’t be considered the favorites to win the NL Central because they simply won’t be able to match the Brewers pitching, but the Pirates could, very easily, enter 2012 as the favorite if the Brewers do not return Prince Fielder.  To do so, they will need to be smart and add value to their organization throughout July and August and into the offseason, but this shouldn’t be a problem.  After all, it’s how the Pirates got to this position in the first place.

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