This is the third piece in an ongoing series previewing the 6 teams in the NL Central.
1) Can the team find the anchor bat it needs to take the next step forward ?
Last year, the Pirates finished 13th out of 16 teams in the National League in runs scored. Playing in spacious PNC Park, they were actually probably a little bit better than that total would make it appear, but it’s still not close to good enough to push the team into contention. That isn’t to say they don’t have some offensive firepower. Andrew McCutchen is one of the very best all around players in baseball these days, and his bat is one that can play in a lot of spots in the lineup. They also have a collection of players who figure to hit at least passably well for their position, like Neil Walker, Clint Barmes and perhaps Alex Pressley. The problem is, though, that the Pirates do not have the sort of true middle-of-the-order power bat that playoff teams generally build their lineup around. That player was supposed to be the much maligned Pedro Alvarez, the #2 pick in the 2008 draft. After a solid rookie campaign in 2010, though, he regressed under a mountain of strikeouts and his power virtually vanished in 2011. Upgrading weaknesses is a good thing, but ultimately the Pirates need a stud in the middle to compliment McCutchen and Alvarez needs to be given time to try and turn it around, Rickie Weeks style. Long term, though, if it’s not going to be Alvarez, the team may have to wait a while for one to develop through their minor league system or go out and overpay on the free agent market, neither of which are ideal solutions.
2) How quickly can their minor league system provide more reinforcements?
The Pirates have been rebuilding now for quite a while. The last time they drafted outside of the top 5 was in 2005, ironically the year they took their current best player, McCutchen. Though they used to waste picks in search of players willing to sign for cheap, in recent years the Pirates have figured out that it’s still much cheaper to “overpay” for a top amateur than it is to sign most free agents and that teams in markets like Pittsburgh simply have to build from within. As a result, the Pirates possess one of the best trios of young arms in the minors in Gerrit Cole, Jameson Taillon and Luis Heredia. They also have a couple of potential star hitters in Josh Bell and Starling Marte. The problem is, only Marte has played a professional game above low-A ball among that group, and he probably has the least upside. How quickly this group can move to the majors will go a long way towards determining the near-term outlook for the Pirates, especially on the pitching side, where the major league roster is full of mostly mid-to-back end starters.
3) How long can the Pirates stay on course with the current plan?
Things are undoubtedly getting better in Pittsburgh these days. Last year, they were in first place in the NL Central on July 19th. It didn’t last long, as a surge by the Brewers soon left everyone else in the division in the dust for good and the Pirates stumbled badly over the final two months to another disappointing second division finish. The brief period of success made many people in the area take notice of what was going on with the team for the first time in a long time. The Pirates were finally showing some promise after a very long fallow period. The question is, can they deliver quickly enough on this promise to take advantage of this new good will? It’s probably going to be difficult for them to do so in the near term, as the Central features three teams explicitly built to win right now and with quite a few good players in the primes of their careers. Thus far, the Pirates have resisted the temptation to undermine the long term build they have going on by trading away youngsters for “win now” vets or signing any future-crippling, long term free agent contracts. Can this project produce fast enough results in the standings to make those things unnecessary, or will management eventually have to capitulate to the demands of fans who have waited so long for something to cheer about?