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Milwaukee Brewers At Pittsburgh Pirates: Series Preview

In the spirit of the upcoming series between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Pittsburgh Pirates that begins tonight at PNC Park, we sent five questions over to Troy Pfaff, the author of Buccos Buzz. He asked us about the Brewers here. Here’s his take on the Pirates:

1) Are the Pirates going to be ANY better this year? Or is it the cellar again?

Troy: I truly believe the Pirates will win at least 70 games this year. I’ve got them at 71, but anywhere from 70-75 wouldn’t surprise me. Needless to say, 70 wins is a big improvement on the team’s 57-105 record from 2010. I think the Pirates will finish fifth in the NL Central this season, ahead of the Houston Astros.

The hitting will be the Pirates’ biggest area of improvement this year. With their young nucleus of players stepping into full-time roles, this team will definitely improve on its last-ranked offense from 2010.

I believe 2011 is the big stepping stone to the Bucs hitting that .500 mark. If they can win at least 70 games this year, 2012 should be the year the team breaks .500.

2) What players on the Pirates stand out?

Troy: First and foremost is center fielder Andrew McCutchen. He’s hit exactly .286 in both of his first two seasons in the big leagues with identical OBP numbers, and the 24-year-old has already been called the best center fielder in the majors by MLB Network. He is the definition of a five-tool player. His speed is his biggest asset, but he can hit for both average and power, in addition to possessing a great glove in the outfield.

Left fielder Jose Tabata, second baseman Neil Walker and third baseman Pedro Alvarez are the other standout players currently with the Bucs. All three players are age 25 or younger, and were at least honorable mentions by MLB Network when Top 10 position rankings came out in January.

Tabata is quietly becoming one of the better lead-off men in the game, while Alvarez’s potential has been compared to that of Ryan Howard. Walker is also a solid bat in the two hole, as he hit .296 in 110 games in the big leagues last season.

3) What have been the early-season storylines for Pittsburgh?

Troy: First, the Pirates’ starting pitching has been nothing short of awesome. This was definitely expected to be the team’s downfall in 2011, but the starters currently rank in the top four in the National League in ERA. If the Pirates can keep getting pitching performances like this from Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton and James McDonald, a .500 season is not out of reach.

The next-biggest storyline in Pittsburgh has been Pedro Alvarez. As I mentioned before, Alvarez is projected to turn into essentially the next Ryan Howard. However, he is not producing right now in the number five spot in the lineup. He’s hitting below the Mendoza Line of .200 and hasn’t homered yet. I know it’s early, but he needs to pick up his game. I wrote an article on this the other day: http://www.buccosbuzz.com/20110410-pedro-alvarez-ryan-howard-in-the-making/

4) What area has been the Pirates’ biggest strength so far this year?

Troy: The Pirates have received a nice boost from the pitching, but carrying the load so far is the top of the lineup.

Lead-off man Jose Tabata is batting .342 and currently owns a nine-game hit streak. Neil Walker is hitting .300 while placing fifth in the NL in RBI, and Andrew McCutchen is turning into one of the most clutch hitters in the majors.

5) What area has been the Pirates’ biggest weakness?

Troy: I’ll have to say the defense here. While Pedro Alvarez has come up with some huge plays at the hot corner (he single-handedly saved the game in the 10th inning against the Rockies the other day), he’s also had his questionable moments. Neil Walker still looks shaky at second, as he and Ronny Cedeno obviously need some more work turning double plays.

Thanks again to Troy. Our pick: Brewers take two of three.