With the signing of Andrew McCutchen the Pirates finally appear to be making a move toward building a winning team. Ideally through the length of the contract, from both parties perspectives, the team is able to improve their win total for the next two seasons, then start competing for wild card spots and maybe even the division. But will the Pirates be able to acquire enough talent over the next 6 seasons, be it through trade, free agency, or internal development to actually win? Let’s take a look.
Over the past 19 seasons the Pittsburgh Pirates have been the worst professional franchise in North American sports history, with a losing record in every one. Last season Pittsburgh was precariously in first on July 19th only to have the wheels fall off finishing the year 24-43 with a .358 win %. The team was a paper tiger a during that midseason run to the top of the NL Central, and their second half slump was more indicative of their true talent level. The Pirates scored only 610 runs, good for 4th worst in baseball and their hitters averaged an OPS+ of 87, 10 points below the league’s equilibrium of 97. And that woeful production included McCutchen’s stellar 127 OPS+, 23 steals, and 23 homers. McCutchen did slump massively in the second half last year hitting .216/.330/.392 after an All-Star caliber start to the year.
Pittsburgh’s pitching was slightly below league average last season, thanks to a stellar bullpen, but offense appears to be the more pressing issue. Gerrit Cole was last years #1 overall pick and projects as a very high upside top of the rotation starter according to most talent evaluators. John Sickles believes the team has the 12th best minor league system and Baseball America’s list has 6 of the Pirates 10 best prospects as pitchers. AJ Burnett, who moves from a bandbox in the most brutal division in baseball into the cozier confines of PNC Park and the gentler NL Central, should have a solid 2 years in Pittsburgh. The rest of the pitching staff is a mishmash of retreads, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Eric Bedard, etc., etc. Ideally the rest of the rotation is further bolstered into one of a competitor from within. Gerrit Cole, Jameson Tallion, and other highly touted prospects will have to make an impact to finally get a winning season.
The team has tried to be a little more aggressive in the last 2 years, upping spending in the draft and pursuing aging veterans, like Derrek Lee via trade. Pittsburgh needs its other young players to continue to improve to rise in the standings. Guys like Pedro Alvarez and Jose Tabata had promising 2010 rookie campaigns, faltered in 2011, and could provide a couple extra wins this year just by taking better at-bats. Alvarez walked 24 times in 262 at bats and Tabata who walked around the same rate in 382 at bats, walking only 40 times. Increase those numbers, put more pressure on pitchers by stealing more bases, which Tabata and McCutchen can do, and Pittsburgh could move up the standings. Neil Walker also looks like a potential solid core player. He hit .273/.334/.408 with 12 homers and 86 RBI’s, good numbers for a 2nd baseman. He is also going into his age 26 season, his 3rd in the bigs, and should be entering his prime.
The Pirates will need to develop talent internally if they want to finally crack the 19 year and counting losing streak. External development appears difficult, because very few player want to go to Pittsburgh, and the Pirates rarely seem to have interest in anyone who can make a substantial improvement in the win column. Pittsburgh appears to be hoping that they can follow Tampa Bay’s model for improvement; sign a toolsy outfielder to a team-friendly, long-term contract, finally capitalize on all your high draft picks, and hope that your playoff window opens within the next 6 years. Pirates success has a time clock now, because I don’t think Andrew McCutchen will want to stick around if it doesn’t turn around soon.