I just don’t get a lot of the pessimism I read on this board.
Would the 2013 Pirates be better if they’d signed Josh Hamilton or some other big-name free agent? Well sure, but that was never going to happen anyway. Would they be better if they traded away their farm system for Giancarlo Stanton? In the short term, yes. But the best way to be certain your team produces at least one or two quality major leaguers every year is by having lots of interesting prospects down on the farm. But when you start packaging guys like Jameson Taillon, Josh Bell, Gregory Polanco, Alen Henson or whoever else it would take to pry a genuine difference-maker away from some other team, you significantly cut down the odds of the pool yielding the numbers a small-market team like the Pirates needs to be a consistent contender rather than a flash in the pan.
That said, I don’t see how you can look at what the Pirates did this offseason and conclude they’re not a better club than they were a year ago — in some respects much better. And as frustrating as last year’s collapse was, we shouldn’t forget this team was in first place after the All-Star break and in contention well into August.
By anyone’s standards, that ain’t chopped liver, and by Pirate standards it’s reason enough to look forward to next year and wonder whether the 2013 installment will be even better. And a quick position-by-position analysis tells me, at least, it absolutely will be:
• Starting pitching. I grant you our rotation isn’t the ’71 Orioles, but think where we were a year ago, when our Opening Day starters were Erik Bedard, Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton, AJ Burnett and James McDonald, with Jeff Karstens the swingman. This year, it looks like Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, Francisco Liriano, McDonald and Karstens — with some combination of Kyle McPherson, Justin Wilson and Jeff Locke knocking at the door and Gerrit Cole marinating until June at Indy. Anyone who can’t look at those names and conclude we’re much better armed this year is just looking for a reason to bitch.
• On paper, Joel Hanrahan will be a major loss in the bullpen. On the field, though, his play had slipped considerably by the end of last year and the track record of relievers on the wrong side of 30 reversing that trend isn’t good. Fortunately, Jason Grilli’s overall numbers last year were comparable, and Mark Melancon is a guy who’s thrived in the closer role before. Or maybe we get real creative and start transitioning Bryan Morris into that role. All I know is that Neal Huntington’s one true strength seems to be patching together a decent bullpen seemingly out of spare parts. While this year’s version may not have star power at the top, it’s arguably going to be deeper from top to bottom than last year’s pen.
• For some reason, people seem to act like first base is a weakness for the Pirates despite the likelihood that it will be manned on most days by Garrett Jones, who had a .280 average and 24 HRs last year despite having to share time in right field and face too many left handers, against whom he struggles mightily. The addition of Gaby Sanchez as a right-handed platoon partner should limit both of them to roles they can handle. And in the happy event Clint Robinson makes Jones expendable, we have a trade chip some AL team looking for a lefty DH with power would value. Any way you look at it, our options here are preferable to 2012, when the plan called for platooning Jones with Casey McGehee, who turned out to be worthless, and a lack of viable options in right field forced us to over-expose Jones. Those problems appear to have been corrected.
• At second base, not much has changed — thankfully. Where last year Neil Walker was coming off a .273 batting average with 12 HRs, this year it’s a perfectly respectable .280 and 14. And at age 26, he’s just coming into his prime in terms of power. Would it be unrealistic to expect 18 to 20 bombs with no real drop-off in average. Not at all. And while he’s no Mazeroski with the glove, he’d perfectly fine defensively.
• Shortstop continues to be a concern, but at least we know Clint Barmes can hold down the position defensively. At the plate, there’s no reason to think someone at the age of 33 has the capacity to improve his miserable stat line from last year. On the bright side, it’s hard to imagine him being any worse. But if he is, they may have to upgrade here mid-season. Consider shortstop a push from last year.
• At third, we came into last year with a Pedro Alvarez who’d clubbed 16 homers in a half a season as a rookie in 2010, then followed that up with four in 2011. More than a few pundits were ready to label him a bust, but he broke out last year with 30 HRs and a semi-respectable average (for a power hitter) of .244. His fielding can be anything from spectacular to face-palmingly bad on any given play and he still tends to look lost for long stretches at the plate, but at age 25, he’s already a potent force and still has room — and time — for improvement. Is there any way we’re not better off here now than we were a year ago?
• In left field, our Opening Day starter a year ago was Alex Presley, from whom the best we could have hoped was that he’d become a slap-hitting lead-off hitter with speed on the bases. He didn’t. This year left field will be patrolled by Starling Marte, a true five-tool prospect whose debut last year at age 23 did nothing to discredit the notion that he could break through this year with a McCutchen-like season. We’re clearly better off here than we were a year ago.
• There isn’t much that needs to be said about center field, except that last spring Andrew McCutchen was coming off a .259 batting average and 23 homers. This year, he can look back on an MVP-caliber year that saw him hit .327 with 31 homers while playing Gold Glove defense. We may not be any better off at this position in practical terms, but we’re vastly improved in that now we know Cutch is a true star, whereas before we only suspected it.
• In right field, last year we hung our hopes on Jose Tabata and he let us down badly. This year, Tabata is still in the equation, but no one is conceding anything to him. At best he figures to be a platoon partner with the talented but oft-injured Travis Snider. But with the addition of Jerry Sands and the possibility of Garrett Jones, we have actual competition. Maybe none of them plays well, but we’re better off this season in the sense that we at least have numbers.
• At catcher, there’s just no comparison. Russell Martin is no Johnny Bench — hell, he may not even be Russell Martin anymore — but last year we were counting on Rod Barajas, who ended up making us wistful for the days of Ronnie Paulino. If Martin can hit .250, he’ll be an improvement offensively over Barajas. And defensively, he figures to make our pitching staff much, much better while occasionally throwing out a base runner. Huge improvement here.
• It isn’t clear who the role players on the bench will be, but they’ll probably come from a pool that includes Tabata and Presley — both of whom were counted on as starters last season — Sands, Robinson and Josh Harrison, along with back-up catcher Mike McKenry. Compare that to 2012, when we were relying on McGehee, Matt Hague, Yamaico Navarro and Nate McLouth. I get a queasy feeling in my stomach just seeing some of those names again.
Add it all up and it comes to a lineup that’s at least as good at every position (with the possible exception of bullpen) and better or much better at several. Again, considering that what we started out with last year wound up in the thick of the pennant race for about two-thirds of the season, what basis do we have to conclude that a lineup at least as good this year won’t?