The Major League product this year has been terrible. We all know this, and there's no sense in not getting it out of the way early on in this post. With that in mind, the Pirates could have a chance to be 10-20 games better next year, or they could once again flop. There is a lot of uncertainty, and it's all because we don't know what exactly to expect from so many of the current players at the ML level, much less the cast of AA pitchers who are likely to show up sometime next year.
So, this is a sort of sabermetric, part-eye test look at what we should expect next year. It should be a good platform for debate. I'll focus on the potential core hitters and pitchers only. I don't have enough time to do everyone.
Andrew McCutchen, CF- Cutch was a top prospect for years, and his performance last year upon being called up surpassed even the lofty expectations that were set out for him He put up 3.3 WAR by means of tremendous average, speed, and power for a CF. He whacked 12 home runs in 106 games, and hit for a tremendous .368 wOBA. Through the start of this year, he looked to be only improving. Since then, unfortunately, he's tanked it. In 22 more games this year, he has the same number of home runs and only a .349 wOBA, which is still above average but not as good as his five tools indicate it should be.
Even still, Cutch is only 23 and will continue to get better. He's had a few terrible months on this terrible team, but players as talented as him don't usually get held down for long. He has been held down by a .305 BABIP that is the lowest of his career in any sustained minor or major league playing time. I think 4-5 WAR is very reasonable for him next year, and he should be an All-Star. My judgement: McCutchen will be just fine, and he will be a premier center fielder for years to come.
His defense has been a concern this year. If the Pirates teach him up, his speed should make him a wizard in the outfield. Whether that happens or not is anyone's guess. Offensively, though, I see no reason for concern.
Projected 2011: .375-.385 wOBA, 15-20 HR, a slightly improved UZR, 5 WAR.
Jose Tabata, LF- Tabata has been every kind of outstanding since being called up in June. He has lived up to his top prospect pedigree, and like McCutchen last year, surpassed it. Tabata's .350 BABIP is not out of line with his minor league numbers, nor is any part of his solid .347 wOBA, 14 steals, good defense, or .310 average and .361 OBP. In fact, Tabata has outperformed those numbers in the minors. I see no reason to expect regression from him, and I think improvement into an All-Star-type player over a full season is very possible. He's been worth 2.1 WAR in 74 games. He only has four home runs, but if you've watched him, you've seen the great authority with which he hits the ball.
Projected 2011: .350 wOBA, 10-15 HR, .310/.365./.440, 4 WAR
Neil Walker, 2B- Walker is extraordinarily athletic and has a smooth swing, so his .366 BABIP may not be completely out of the realm of possibility for him to sustain close to. It will probably come down a little bit, but I see his BABIP always being above average. He simply hits the ball harder than most. It will go down a little bit, though; it has to. His walk rate is 6%, which is terrible and will stick out a lot of he starts getting unlucky with balls put in play. He has very good power for a 2B with 9 HR in less than a full season's work, and that is very sustainable with room for improvement. His defense has been bad by UZR, but he's just learning the position and will improve marginally for next year. His walk rate and OBP are still big concerns, and they'll ultimately determine if he's an Ian Kinsler or a Ryan Theriot. Walker's future is incredibly uncertain. The sky is the limit, but he won't get there if he can't raise his walk rate.
Projected 2011: .330-.360 wOBA (depending on walks, mostly), 15-20 HR, OBP anywhere from .330 to .370, 3 WAR.
Pedro Alvarez, 3B- I don't think anyone questions Alvarez's place in the Pirates' plans, but whether or not he becomes an elite offensive force or merely an above average one depends on his OBP. Remember that he is a slow starter, but Pedro has only a .311 OBP this season. His walk rate is good at 11.3%, but his K rate is a cover-your-eyes, Mark Reynolds-like 38%. It's tough to imagine a scenario in which that doesn't shrink at least a little bit, but Pedro would be well served to get it down a lot. If he could get his strikeouts to his minor league average of around 27%, his usually solid BABIP (.330 this year, consistent with minors) would lead to something around a .350 OBP, which, coupled with his already good and even more projectable power, would make him one of the game's best third basemen at the plate. Alvarez has had a poor debut season overall, but there's a lot of cause for optimism with him. He only has 10 HR, but that could very well be over 30 in a full year in 2011.
Projected 2011: .380 wOBA, 30 HR, .250./.350./520. 3-6 WAR.
Garrett Jones, 1B/RF- Jones is the least likely of all these guys to be a part of the "core." He doesn't hit lefties well, but does have good power with a team leading 20 HR. Jones is probably an average to above average compliment when used correctly. His wOBA is only .318, and he's a sort of old-ish 29. I don't think the Pirates should be banking on him. He strikes out a lot (20%), and only walks in 8% of his AB. He's also nothing special in the field. HIs .309 OBP also won't cut it in any way.
Projected 2011: .320 wOBA, 20 HR, .260/.315./430.
And now the pitchers:
James McDonald- His ERA is bad, but J-Mac has pitched excellently in his first month as a Buc. He has an awesome 2.91 FIP on the strength of almost 10 K/9, 3.4/BB/9, and .26 HR/9 with the team. Those are all great numbers, and given McDonald's good velocity and command of his breaking ball, not really unsustainable. He'll probably give up a few more home runs, but he's got a lot of talent. The ERA is only bad because Doumit and Milledge have both undone one of his starts with abhorrent plays in right field that have let big innings get off the ground against him. McDonald can be a good number three starter.
Projected 2011: 3.5-4.5 ERA, similar K/BB numbers as he has now, and hopefully double-digit wins (not that they really matter as a stat)
Ross Ohlendorf- Ohlendorf has had the worst luck imaginable this year. He's had three freak injuries and the team has saddled him with only one win and double-digit losses. Ohlie has good stuff, but his 4.47 FIP is not as good as his ERA of 4.07. This is two years in a row that he's put up a good enough ERA in spite of a bad FIP, which is kind of weird and unexpcted. We'll see if he improves or regresses next year. His sinker makes him worth the rotation spot.
Projected 2011: 4-5 ERA, 4.5-5 FIP.
On the relief pitchers, I'll make a broad generalization. Joel Hanrahan is awesome, Evan Meek isn't far behind, and Chris Resop is very good. Wil Ledezma may or may not be any good. The rest of them, without fail, are not worth the Pirates' time as relievers. Dan McCutchen is the only other potentially useful guy there, and he's better as a starter.
I'm interested in your agreements or disagreements with me.