Do you remember the 1992 National League Championship Series? The Pittsburgh Pirates had a 2-0 lead in the ninth of Game 7 in Atlanta before a three-run rally was punctuated by slow-footed Sid Bream beating a throw home from a young (and gangly) left fielder named Barry Bonds and Pittsburgh lost its third straight NLCS. If you remember that, you not only remember Pittsburgh’s last playoff appearance, but their last winning season. Coming off a year where they led the NL Central as late as July before slipping under .500, hopes are high that this Pittsburgh team can hit the magic number of 82 wins—and maybe more. TheSportsNotebook uses our usual evaluation points of the ability to get on base, hit for power, starting pitching and relief pitching.
ABILITY TO GET ON BASE: All facets of this offense, including this one, are built around centerfielder Andrew McCutchen. While he doesn’t hit for average at an All-Star level, he does a great job in drawing his walks. Second baseman Neil Walker can also contribute here, but he needs to step up from his .334 OBP of a year ago. Elsewhere, Pittsburgh is going to depend on comeback years from Nate McClouth and Casey McGehee. The Pirates traded McClouth to Atlanta after he had three excellent years from 2007-09, but given a chance to play on a contender he collapsed with the Braves. Now he’s back in Pittsburgh and currently slated as the fourth outfielder, but with a chance at a lot of playing time. McGehee had been a solid offensive player at third base for Milwaukee before a disastrous season a year ago. He’ll get a chance to compete with Pedro Alvarez for the job in Pittsburgh. The Pirates will be much better if both players can earn starting spots and return to previous standards.
POWER: McCutchen again carries the load here, and again Pittsburgh is looking to get some comeback years. McGehee could help here, as could shortstop Clint Barmes. He looked to be on his way to a career as a big-league starter in Colorado. While his on-base percentages were never anything to write home about, he did show good power in 2008-09 and needs to get that back or this will be his last stop as a starter. Alex Presley showed the sparks of potential last year slugging .465 in 215 at-bats and he’s slated to be the everyday player in left field. The question mark is 23-year-old Jose Tabata. He showed good promise in 2010, but last year saw a dropoff. If Tabata can’t produce consistently, his job will end up in McLouth’s hands. Garrett Jones is at first base and his power can’t justify a starting job at a corner position.
STARTING PITCHING: The Pirates are already struggling with injuries as we aren’t even halfway into March. There was A.J. Burnett’s much-publicized injury after he bunted himself in the face shortly after being acquired from the Yankees. Burnett will be out until at least the end of April and possibly the end of May. Charlie Morton who won 10 games with a 3.83 ERA last year is coming off hip surgery. Does it say something about the health of Clint Hurdle’s pitching staff that Erik Bedard is the example of readiness everyone else is striving for? Bedard is a solid lefthanded starter when healthy, but he hasn’t been so consistently since 2007 and has only made 30-plus starts once in his career. The two pitchers Hurdle will have to fall back on are James McDonald and Jeff Karstens. McDonald posted a 4.21 ERA in 31 starts last year, his first crack at a regular job, and Karstens also made the most starts of his career (26) and had a 3.38 ERA. Overall, there’s enough here to keep Pittsburgh decent and if everything somehow clicked to be a real contender in a weak NL Central.
RELIEF PITCHING: Joel Hanrahan came blazing out of nowhere as the closer last year, nailing down 40 of 44 save opportunities with a 1.83 ERA. It’s unrealistic to expect a repeat of that kind of performance, and what Pirate fans have to worry about it is that this will end up another case of a reliever fading as fast as he blazed. My guess is that Hanrahan is still a decent, albeit not All-Star level closer this year, but that it’s the beginning of a descent back to obscurity. The setup men are similarly respectable. Evan Meek was an All-Star in ’10, injured in ’11 and I’m expecting him to find a happy medium in ’12. Daniel McCutchen had a nice year last season and his 3.72 ERA wasn’t so dynamic that he couldn’t do it again. Beyond this group, Jason Grilli, Chris Resop and Juan Cruz could range from being pretty good to pretty bad. In short, Hurdle has a serviceable bullpen that can handle games if his team gets a lead. But they won’t represent a competitive edge.
LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER: 73.5—This is a pretty pessimistic outlook, given that I think Pittsburgh can get 73-74 wins even if they struggle with the kind of injuries to the pitching rotation they’ve got right now. Yes, the bottom could fall out if McDonald and Karstens don’t continue steady improvement, but there’s even more upside if they get their arms healthy, some of the bats start to come together and playing in the NL Central means that a winning season’s a realistic shot. I’m on the Over.