I tend to ask everyone and their mother this heading into or around Spring Training every year, and now that I'm a part of BucsDugout I figure I can get even more opinions, not to mention they'll probably be more intelligent as well.
I'll break this up into Pitching and Position, neglecting the minors for now. The order I list them doesn't necessarily suggest who I think has a better chance either.
There are a few obvious things that can happen with the pitching situation. Erik Bedard could live up to his potential and be lights out, or his arm could fall off mid-seson as well. James McDonald and Charlie Morton could make huge strides forward and tap into their potential. Jeff Karstens could also make or break the rotation. Here a few less discussed players:
1.) Kevin Correia:
I kind of feel dirty for suggesting this, but the guy was more than solid on the road, and full knowing that he'll be heading into free agency at the end of the season I wouldn't doubt a turn around at home. He could very well step up as the Bucs will probably depend on him for quite a few innings. I've half-jokingly suggested before that Hurdle should sit him during home games and give a lefty his home starts to benefit from PNC, though that won't happen anywhere but my day dreams.
2.) Jo-Jo Reyes:
Ray Searage appears to be a miracle worker, and Reyes is young with some decent peripherals and a solid history in the minors. Worst case scenario he could be an effective lefty out of the pen.
3.) Chris Leroux:
Leroux's been discussed a good bit as to whether or not he'll get some starts or work out of the pen and how he no longer has any remaining options. He fared well in a small sample size in the bigs last season after some rough stints between AA and AAA. The brass seems pretty mum on the possibility of him starting, but he could be called on if situations get desperate. It'd be better than seeing another Aaron Thompson out there.
4.) Brad Lincoln:
It seems like forever ago that some fans were looking forward to Lincoln's debut. The guy has solid stuff and could be called on to be a dependable fifth starter, but it would be nice to see more. I'd love to see him turn it on, and I think he's still got the ability to do so, though the clock's running out on him.
5.) Shairon Martis:
Martis was pretty impressive for the Nats for awhile in '09 and he's still incredibly young at 24. He's got the stuff, but does he have the work ethic? His weight has presented struggles for him before, but if he could perform well he could very well work his way into a rotation that's far from concrete.
Once again I'll avoid the more obvious situations. We all know that Pedro needs to perform for the Bucs to be successful in 2012 and beyond. Alex Presley is also expected to play a big part in the face of the offense so I'll try to stay away from those guys.
1.) Garrett Jones
Garrett's had a bit of a fall from grace. He was once thought to be the next power hitter in a Pirates uniform, but at this point in time appears to just be lightning in a bottle or streaky at best. To his defense, he's bounced back and forth between outfield and first base, and seems to be fighting his own mentality at times. If Jones can come into the season prepared to play first and get off to a good start at the plate he could catch fire and reclaim the nick name "legend" once more. I believe he realizes he's on a short leash, after openly admitting to being nervous at the non-tender deadline. I wouldn't count him out just yet.
2.) Casey McGehee:
McGehee was a solid pickup by NH and he had impressive 2009 and 2010 campaigns, but became disposable to the Brewers after a glum 2011. If Mcgehee and turn it back on this year he could very well steal the first base job from under GFJ or third from Pedro if that situation is morbid again. McGehee has some great pop and everyone in the greater Pittsburgh area and then some knows the Pirates are starving for right handed power, or any power. If he turns it on McGehee could be fun to watch, plus hes a chubby guy and well, I always root for the chubby guy.
3.) Jose Tabata:
2011 was sizing up to be the year of Jose. He came into camp stronger, looking to add a little more pop to his swing, and after an impressive rookie debut in 2010 things were looking up, but those hopes fizzled rather quickly as Jose couldn't seem to avoid nagging injuries. Jose still looks strong, and with a new training staff he'll hopefully last the full season. I wouldn't expect him to start launching bombs per-say, but adding some more extra-base power isn't out of the question. If all pans out correctly, Tabata and Presley could be a force at the top of the lineup.
4.) Michael McKenry:
What? You don't have Fort Fever? Lies. It's hard not to root for McKenry. The guy has a strong work ethic, is young, has impressive minor league numbers, and Pittsburgh loves him. McKenry is nearly a shoe-in for the back up catcher job, and should expect to see some significant time if he does so as Barajas doesn't project to be catching many more than 100 games. In an organization short on catching, McKenry could provide a real boost for now and the short-term future if those hitting sessions with Clint Hurdle pay off.
5.) Neil Walker:
Another guy who Pittsburgh loves, Walker appears to be the unofficial team captain. This is a fortunate situation for the Pirates to have as since Walker took off in 2010 he's taken some pressure off McCutchen as the face of the franchise, and seems to be happy to do so. Neil isn't your prototypical second baseman, but proved he could handle it with ease last season, being nominated for a Golden Glove. Neil also doesn't size up well as a clean-up hitter, but indications are he could very well start the season hitting fourth since no other real options exist yet. If neil can build on two solid back-to-back seasons he could prove to be extremely valuable going forward. I don't expect a huge jump, but seeing him get closer to 20 HR's with a jump in average and slugging would be refreshing.
The cold, hard truth is that the NL Central is changing and the Pirates have an outside shot of competing, though everything must go right for that to happen. If even one or two of those guys listed above turn it up a notch, it could prove to be a boost to a team that deserves a few breaks...about 20 years worth.