The ups and downs of the past year are starting to take their toll on Pirates fans everywhere, an emotional roller coaster that started like April and has continued during this Jekyll and Hyde season for the Bucs in 2012. The Pirates are sitting at 21-24, 4.0 games out in the dilapidated N.L. Central – a division that is starting to resemble a train wreck in progress. The bad news? This team is hitting at a rate that will ultimately place them alongside some of the notoriously-bad 1960’s teams in terms of every offensive category. The team has seen it’s three main free agent pickups – SS Clint Barmes, C Rod Barajas, and OF Nate McLouth – all flail away time after time, and has already cut bait with McLouth – one of the most fan-friendly signings the team has ever made. McLouth is a player who genuinely wanted to be in Pittsburgh, and is now probably out of baseball for good after looking like he forgot how to play the game – Nick Esasky-style. Barmes continues to be awful, adding terrible defense to a .176 batting average that is bolstered by 2-out hits from the 8-hole in the lineup – in other words, worthless hits. Barajas has seen his production spike lately and is handling one of the top pitching staffs in the National League, adding some value to his signing. The team as a whole has played a bad brand of baseball, highlighted by some of the worst base-running ever seen.
The good news? There is some good news, I promise. Let’s take a deep breath, enjoy the Memorial Day weekend, and bullet-point the items that should put a smile on even the biggest Pirates skeptics face.
1. The N.L. Central is up for grabs – The St. Louis Cardinals were the obvious favorite after their mad dash to a World Series title last fall, but they have had a rash of injuries, costing them 1B Lance Berkman and SP Chris Carpenter, leaving them with two of their biggest stars on the sideline. The man holding it all together currently is OF Carlos Beltran, an injury waiting to happen. The Cardinals recently were overtaken in the division by the Cincinnati Reds, who are in first place with a 25-20 record. The rest of the division has surprising Houston in third place at 22-23, but once the trade deadline approaches you can be sure that GM Jeff Luhnow will be playing the spare parts game with SP Wandy Rodriguez, 1B Carlos Lee, and anyone else the Astros can get solid value for. The Milwaukee Brewers and Chicago Cubs are well into bad seasons in both cities, in fifth and sixth place in the division and getting further buries by the day. This leaves the Pirates as a legit contender for this horrible division. With six of the next nine games against the division-leading Redlegs, the Pirates have a chance to really build some momentum and place themselves in prime position to be in the division race by mid-June.
2. Andrew McCutchen is a serious contender for N.L. MVP – Perhaps nobody expected the 25-year old centerfielder to be this good this fast. McCutchen is a five-tool player who is right up there with the Matt Kemps and David Wrights of the National League in terms of their 2012 campaigns thus far. Should the Pirates make a mid-season run and stay in the race for a playoff spot down to the wire, McCutchen could be very much in the race for the National League Most Valuable Player award. The last Pirate to win the MVP was Barry Bonds in 1992. Currently hitting .335 with 7 HR and 24 RBI to go along with 10 stolen bases and fantastic defensive that could win him his first Golden Glove, McCutchen is a bona-fide superstar and is in the Pirates fold through 2018 at minimum after signing a six-year extension back in March.
3. The Schedule will play to the Pirates favor the rest of the way – Many of the stumbling blocks series are out of the way already, including road trips to Philadelphia and Atlanta, two trips that helped sink the 2011 Bucs. The Pirates already have their initial west-coast trip in the tank, which is a big deal as the weather gets hot and the season wears on. The Cardinals and Reds still have west coast swings to worry about. The Pirates play the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros a combined 27 more times this season, which accounts for almost 1/4 of their total remaining schedule. They also play 24 games against the Cardinals and Reds, the two teams they will be chasing all summer long. Neither team is a powerhouse, and both are dealing with injuries and performance issues from payers they expected to be major contributors. The Cardinals have lost 1B Lance Berkman for at least 10 weeks. The Reds are experiencing problems with their starting pitching beyond Mat Latos and Johnny Cueto. SP Mike Leake and SP Homer Bailey have been mediocre at best and the Reds will probably be looking for starting pitching help at the deadline. The Cardinals, as mentioned before, are getting great seasons thus far from Rafael Furcal and Carlos Beltran, two players who annually end up on the DL. It remains to be seen if the loss of Berkman continues to leave a void in their lineup or if rookie 1B Matt Adams can show the power the Redbirds will need to offset Berkman. OF Matt Holliday is heating up, so that may give the Cardinals another bat with Beltran, who has been off the charts this season – .292/14 HR/38 RBI through 47 games played. The rest of the Bucs schedule will include Inter league matchups with Detroit at home (3-games), Kansas City at home (3-games), at Baltimore (3-games) against the surprising Orioles, at Cleveland (3-games) against the first place Tribe, and a home series (3-games) against the horrible Minnesota Twins, who are already 11.0 games back in the A.L. Central. Baltimore, Detroit, and Cleveland pose serious challenges for the Bucs, while the Royals and Twins should be winnable series played in PNC Park. A four-game series at Philadelphia looms in late June, with the possibility that both 2b Chase Utley and 1B Ryan Howard could be back in the lineup by that point. Let’s not forget about those pesky Milwaukee Brewers – the team that has given the Pirates the most trouble over the past five years. We have yet to see the Brew Crew, which means we will see ALOT of them and their depleted lineup in the coming months. The Pirates kick off June with a 3-game set in Milwaukee, then play another 3-game set at Miller Park right after the All-Star Break. What that means is the Pirates will get the Brewers in two HOME series in the “dog days of summer” that could be make or break for both clubs. By that point, the Brewers may be in seller mode and looking to rebound in 2013. The Pirates will see the struggling San Diego Padres for six games in August, wrapped around pivotal series against the Diamondbacks and Dodgers at home. This is a schedule that sets up for the Pirates to at least maintain a .500 record through August, and hopefully GM Neil Huntigton will make some moves early enough this season to help the offense. Last season, the acquisitions made came way too late and it cost the Bucs the two biggest series of the season (@ ATL and @PHL) that began the burial of the 2011 Buccos. “Real Deal Neil” should be manning the phone lines by mid-July if the Pirates are within 5.0 games of the top in the N.L. Central race.
4. Help is on the way from Indianapolis – With the sudden drop of Nate McLouth, the Pirates are now thin in the outfield. They seem reluctant to give rookie OF Gorkys Hernandez a long stint in the lineup to see where he is developmentally, so if the continued struggles of OF Jose Tabata extend through June, the call should go out for help from down the farm. Hopefully, the help will come in the shape of OF Starling Marte, who besides a minor injury has shown that he is ready for the big leagues. He is currently hitting .316 with 16 extra-base hits and 12 stolen bases at Indy. The other option is to bring Opening Day OF Alex Presley back into the major leagues, as he has ripped apart AAA pitching since his demotion. Second baseman/shortstop Jordy Mercer is looking like he is ready to make the jump as well, hitting .295 with 2 HR and 20 RBI in just 166 at-bats at Indy. With the struggles of Clint Barmes, the Pirates may turn to their internal insurance policy at shortstop and Mercer is that guy. A surprise at AAA has been the play of veteran OF Brandon Boggs, who is leading the team with a .335 BA and could be a useful fourth outfielder for the Bucs. On the pitching end, the Pirates have RP Duke Welker on the high-speed path to Pittsburgh. The hard-throwing right-handed pitcher dominated AA and will try to do the same at AAA. If he excels at Indianapolis, the Pirates have an ace up their sleeve for another quality bullpen arm – a commodity that is integral to any contending team in a pennant race.
5. SP Jeff Karstens is almost ready to come back – Karstens has been a very reliable major-league starter and with the Pirates starting staff looking good, there is no rush on his timetable to return. However, when he does return it should mark the end of Kevin Correia in the rotation – a significant upgrade. A rotation of McDonald/Burnett/Bedard/Morton/Karstens is a formidable group, and the emergence of Brad Lincoln as a quality reliever/fill-in starter has given the Pirates even more options for the stretch run. Jeff Karstens return will be a shot-in-the-arm for the club and combined with the now dominant McDonald, the Pirates young pitchers can combine with their veterans to create a staff that rivals any in the National League Central.
6. Potential Trade Targets will be plenty – Last year when the Bucs brought in 1B Derrek Lee, he immediately showed what new blood can do to a struggling club. Before his injury, he was giving the Bucs exactly what they needed – a big bat in the middle of the lineup. This season, names such as Twins 1B Justin Morneau, Astros 1b Carlos Lee, Padres OF Carlos Quentin, Dodgers 1b James Loney, injured Arizona SS Stephen Drew, Twins OF Denard Span, Rockies SS Marco Scutaro, Padres SS Jason Bartlett, and even Red Sox OF Cody Ross could be had in deals. The Pirates have the young pitching that teams crave (although Jameson Taillon, Gerrit Cole, Luis Heredia are not up for discussion). Any of the players mentioned above would bring pieces the Buccos need to acquire if they are in this for real in 2012. Expect to start hearing the rumors floating out there in late-June as management evaluates the Pirates chances of making the postseason.
7. SP James McDonald has become a sure-fire ACE – When the Bucs acquired McDonald from the Dodgers for journeyman reliever Octavio Dotel, nobody could have projected how quickly he would become the ace of the Pirates pitching staff. But two years later, he is just that – and the national media is beginning to take notice. Since the 2011 All-Star Break, McDonald is up there with names like Verlander, Halladay, Lee, and King Felix as the best starters in baseball. He is the “stopper” the Bucs have lacked for some many years, and is quietly putting together a Cy Young quality season. If the Pirates offense can get some run support for him, a 20-win campaign is not out of the question. Pirates fans should be packing PNC Park to see James McDonald pitch this season, as he is emerging the same way that Doug Drabek emerged in 1990.
8. Clint Hurdle will NOT let this team fail – The Pirates Manager is loyal, almost to a fault. However, he will pull the plug on hitting coach Gregg Ritchie if the offense continues to slumber. The other Hurdle man on the roster, Clint Barmes, is already on a tight rope and if he does not get his hitting in line with his career marks, expect the Pirates to pull that plug sooner than later. Hurdle has been publicly frustrated with Barmes horrific strike out rate and recently was caught by the ROOT Sports cameras as he chastised the shortstop for a bad defensive play. Barmes is on borrowed time in Pittsburgh. Expect either Josh Harrison to take over the spot or a call to Indianapolis for Jordy Mercer fairly soon.
OK Pirates fans, after tonight we sit 22-24 and have a chance to sweep the Chicago Cubs tomorrow afternoon, leading into the biggest series of the young season – a 3-game series at PNC Park against the first place Reds. If the Pirates get hot and – knock on wood – sweep Cincinnati, they could be looking at a second place standing and a 1.0 game deficit in the division. A follow-up series in Cincy June 5-7 could be the series that propels the Pirates over .500 and into first place if all falls right.
Hey, I know this is all very optimistic information. But this is “Chicken Soup for the 2012 Pirates Fan’s Soul” and I think we all need to think positively and get out to the ballpark to support this team. The Pirates have a very interesting few months ahead of them, and when the smoke clears, there is a very real chance they could be zeroing in on one of those TWO Wild Card sports in the National League.
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