Hope. Yes, it springs eternal, even for Pirates fans. I sit here unable to sleep because I suddenly find myself extremely excited for the possibility of Pitchers and Catchers being just days away. Why am I excited for Pirate baseball to get back underway in spite of the streak and last year post Jerry Meals debacle? Well that's easy. I really believe this year is year is going to be year one of the return to baseball relevancy.
First let's go through why the Pirates were competitive for the majority of last season. They had "great" pitching and while they struck out constantly, they got timely hitting and ran aggressively. But was the pitching really great? The bullpen was amazing, as NH once again put together an amazing pen with a great unheralded offseason acquisition in Jose Veras (remember that time he struck out Big Papi in the rain?) and with the decision to keep Chris Leroux at the expense of Bob Smizik's favorite KC Royal. But as great as the pen was, the starters weren't exact;y worldbeaters. What they did do well was not walk the opposing team (other than Jmac) and let the opposition put the ball in play for an absolutely ridiculously rangy defense. The outfield defense was anchored by. an outfield featuring at times either Alex Presley or Jose Tabata in Left, Cutch in center, Those guys covered so much ground that it wasn't until the Philadelphia road series that we noticed that A)we had a right fielder and B)they both sucked. At the peak of our tenure in first place, the infield defense of J-hay, Cedeno (who until he was injured was having a career year defensively) Walker and Overbay made up for their lack of fielding skill by gobbling up ground ball after ground ball and turning timely DP after timely DP to get out of jams.
Unfortunately, we swapped out Overbay for Derrek Lee, Harrison for an out of shape Alvarez and Cedeno regressed. Tabata got hurt, then Pressley followed, and when both returned, for some reason they played right while the slow and nonathletic one know as Ryan Ludwick played the far more (at least from a range perspective) position of left. The defense went to hell as while Overbay was in the midst of a bad statistical defensive season, he inspired confidence and composure in the rest of the infield as they truely believe he could dig any ball in the dirt or pick any offline throws. Combine that with switching the light hitting McKenry for Doumit led to the squad being victimized by base stealers and poorly called games. Suddenly the pitching regressed and while the offense was better with Doumit, Ludwick and Lee in the lineup, the team fell as they played away from the formula that led to their early success.We all then were treated to watching a Cardinals team that we were clearly better than at times last season win the World series again while we were left shaking our heads at the biggest missed opportunity in years due to an exceptionally weak NL Central.
So what does any of this have to do with 2012? Well good news, the Pirates may not have been able to get any free agents to take their money (#EjaxtoPGH.... really a 1 year deal with the Nationals) They were able to replace shoulder injury Paul Maholm with a better pitcher who has shoulder issues in Bedard, and they picked up a slew of Raphael Belliard types on the waiver wire, rule 5 and through free agency. Barmes, Navorro and co should lead to someone emerging capable of playing like Cedeno did last year (solid D and an occasional timely 2 out nobody on double driving in 0 runs so the pitcher can then strike out to end the inning. Derrek Lee and Overbay may be gone, McGeehee, Hague and Jones should be able to lead to some form of a an above average firstbaseman. A projected outfield defense of Jose Tabata, Cutch and Pressley will cover more ground than (insert random metaphor about covering ground well. All of this leads me to believe that fly ball pitchers like Bedard, JK, Correia and even maybe Burnett if the Yankee ever agree to a deal, could have career years.
Then, the cherry on top, Andrew McCutchen keeps getting better every single year. Jose Tabata is going to hit better than last year if healthy. Pedro Alvarez is apparently in shape and SHOULD be better than last year. Nate McLouth is there to ensure the outifeld D and offense doesnt fall off if one of those speedy guys goes down. Neil Walker is blossoming into a leader and for wahtever reason he always comes through with runners in scoring position. Couple all of that with the fact that the Cardinals and Brewers just got the Barry Bonds treatment from Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, respectively. Oh and of course there's Ryan Braun's steroid suspension (obviously he just made the mistake of hanging around TCU football players). So with the Cards down, the Brewers down, the Astros sending out an independent league team and the Cubs rebuilding that leaves us and the Reds. Now I realize the Reds have added Matt Latos and Ryan Madson. That being said we pretty much handled them all season long last year and I see no reason that can't continue.
To bring it all home... improved and consistent defense makes pitching better. Speed makes hitting better. Our division is a joke. This is our year.