18 straight losing seasons. A league worst record of 57-105 last year. A horrendous 17-64, .210 winning percentage, on the road. Virtually no noteworthy free agent signings. Coming in, there weren't a lot of reasons to be optimistic about the Pittsburgh Pirates 2011 season. But after winning two of three on the road against the Cubs and Cards and splitting their first two at home against the Rockies, the Pirates are a surprising 5-3. You can read Part 1 of my observations here. Here are some other things that stand out.
Neal Huntington and the bullpen:
General Manager Neal Huntington has repeatedly stated that he doesn't feel a need to spend a lot of money when constructing his bullpen. Relievers are the most fungible of commodities. It's clear Huntington likes hard throwers and he has been willing to sift through a lot of players to find a few who have proved useful.
Last year the Bucs signed Octavio Dotel, Javier Lopez, D.J. Carrasco and Brendan Donnelly. Donnelly was ineffective and released and is out of baseball, but the other three were relatively cheap and effective and the Pirates were able to trade them all at the deadline and turned them into James McDonald, Andrew Lambo, John Bowker, Chris Snyder and Pedro Ciriaco. (Ryan Church and Bobby Crosby, both currently out of baseball, where included in the deadline deals as well.) I'm not sure you can do much better than that.
This year Huntington signed Jose Veras to a minor-league deal and acquired Garrett Olson as a waiver-wire claim from the Mariners in mid-March. Added to Joel Hanrahan ($1.4 million; acquired with Lastings Milledge in a trade for Sean Burnett and Nyjer Morgan), Evan Meek ($461,500; Rule 5 pickup), Jeff Karstens ($1.1 million; acquired in the Xavier Nady/Damaso Marte trade), Chris Resop ($431,500; waiver claim from the Braves last August) and Mike Crotta ($414,000; the only Pirates draftee in the group), Huntington has been able to put together a very effective bullpen for $5.235,500. Adding the injured free agent signees Joe Beimel (stands to make up to $2 million if and when he's added to the major league roster) and Scott Olsen ($550,000 with varied performance bonuses; he also might end up starting), Huntington has nine guys at a total cost of about $8 million.
Hanrahan and Karstens will be in their second year of arbitration after the 2011 season, Meek, Resop and Olson their first. Veras, Beimel and Olsen are on one-year deals and Crotta is under team control through at least 2016. When individuals are critical of the Pirates and their unwillingness to spend money, just point to the bullpen and add that John Grabow and Damaso Marte are making $8.8 million between them this season.
The performance of the group as a whole thus far has been excellent. Friday night after starter Ross Ohlendorf left the game injured, the bullpen went a scoreless 11.1 innings, giving up six hits and seven walks and striking out 12 in the Pirates' 14-inning, 4-3 win. On the season the bullpen is 2-2 with a 2.37 ERA (2.66 FIP), the sixth-lowest in the majors despite having pitched the second-most innings. The group is sporting a WHIP of 1.32 and a 2:1 K:BB ratio. Early days for sure, but the bullpen may again be the most solid aspect of this year's team and Hanrahan looks to be a dominating closer.
This may be the most difficult thing to discern so far this year. The word I have coined to describe it is erroratic. I'm having trouble deciding if this is a poor defensive team or an average one. On the right side of the infield, Lyle Overbay has been an excellent addition at first, notwithstanding his costly error in the second game of the season. Overbay seems to be above-average in all aspects defensively and that is a recognizable improvement. At second, Neil Walker seems to be flashing improved range (excellent going back on pop flies) and has done an outstanding job standing in on double plays and making the turn. His tosses to second when starting double plays have been less than stellar, but that should be a relatively easy thing to correct in the grand scheme of things.
The left side is more problematic. Shortstop Ronny Cedeno has quickly taken the lead as the player most disliked by the fanbase. While Cedeno occasionally makes the highlight play, has good range and a strong arm, he doesn't make the routine play every time which is why he is so vexing. Unfortunately the Pirates don't have an everyday shortstop other than Ronny in the organization at the moment. I've advocated going after someone like Jed Lowrie of the Red Sox, but the Pirates would have to be willing to give up some of their best minor league talent to get someone of that caliber. More likely fans are going to have to live with Cedeno's physical and mental lapses in 2011 and someone from outside the organization will be manning the position in 2012.
Pedro Alvarez is the most interesting and debated defensive player on the team. Some believe this will be his last year at third while others, including Neal Huntington and Pedro himself feel that doesn't have to be the case. While Alvarez is never going to win a Gold Glove, he has shown that he can play a solid third base and has made two of the best plays of the season, coming in fielding a bunt in Chicago and diving to stop a smash down the line and throwing out the runner from his knees in extra innings against the Rockies. His arm is outstanding and is a huge asset. Like most third basemen lateral movement is not Pedro's strong suit, but I am warming to the idea that Pedro doesn't need to be moved off third anytime soon, particularly if the Pirates draft Gerrit Cole as opposed to Anthony Rendon.
In the outfield, Andrew McCutchen has looked good thus far. He covers a ton of ground and his issues generally seem to be with balls hit right at him and I haven't seen to many of those this year. Cutch's larger issue is getting his throws down to the cutoff man. He has airmailed too many in his brief career. But he clearly has all the skills to be an above-average defender. Jose Tabata also covers a lot of ground. While better than Lastings Milledge, I'm not sure Tabata always takes the best routes. At 22, he's only going to get better. Garrett Jones and Matt Diaz platooning in right is just something we'll have to live with this year.
The catching position has been discussed endlessly. With Chris Snyder about to be added to the roster after his rehab stint, the defense should be at least solid. Doumit and Jaramillo have been passable so far and have thrown out two of six would-be base stealers.
Overall I think the team defense, while not good, will be better than last year.
Stirke-zone control and hitting:
Charlie wrote a couple of good articles here and here that do a good job of breaking down the Pirates' issues of too many strikeouts and not enough walks. The reality is three guys are off to great starts (Walker's OPS+ is 167, Tabata's is 154 and McCutchen's is 150), and three guys have gotten off to terrible starts (Cedeno's OPS+ is 65, Doumit's is 48 and Alvarez's is 33). Alvarez, a notorious slow starter, is the big concern, but it's too early to draw many conclusions. The issue thus far is Alvarez constantly falling behind in counts. He's had some trouble recognizing breaking balls and seems determined to pull every ball. If Pedro comes around the top five in the order will be a formidable group and go a long way to keeping this team competitive day in and day out.
Last night's 14-Inning win:
Clint Hurdle managed circles around Jim Tracy in the 14th inning. With runners on first and second and one out in the top of the inning, Hurdle had Garrett Olson pitch to Carlos Gonzalez. Cargo was third in the MVP voting last year and was 0-for-6 with two strikeouts coming into the at bat, having left seven men on base.
Hurdle went with the lefty-on-lefty matchup and Olson struck out Gonzalez, putting a bow on the worst night of his major league career. Realizing the pitcher's spot was up after Troy Tulowitzki, Hurdle elected to walk the all-star shortstop loading the bases. Tracy called on Todd Helton, a late lineup scratch because of a sore back. Hurdle knew Helton was hurting and rolled the dice that Olson would get Helton as well. He did, on a ground ball to second.
In the bottom of the 14th, the Rockies quickly got two outs before Josh Rodriguez walked. This brought Jose Tabata to the plate. Because of a double-switch in the top of the 10th, Garrett Olson was due up after Tabata. Olson has six career at-bats and hasn't batted since 2009. In a bit of gamesmanship Hurdle sent Andrew McCutchen into the on-deck circle even though McCutchen was up after Olson. Some of the Pirates players think the ruse worked and the Rockies thought Cutch was up next. Possible, but hard to believe. Either way, Tracy inexplicably decided to pitch to Tabata even though the Pirates had no other position players available to pinch hit and no one left in the bullpen. As I tweeted during the at-bat, it was an idiotic decision, and I hoped Tabata would double to end it. That's exactly what happened. It's nice to feel for the first time in about ten years the Pirates have a manager who may actually help rather than hurt them on a nightly basis.