Pittsburgh Pirates 2012 Season Preview: Could This Be The Year?

By Troy Pfaff

Generally, when the fanbase of a professional sports team asks itself “Could this be the year?” prior to the beginning of a given season, it is assessing its team’s odds of winning the championship in its given sport. The phrase can usually be translated to “Will my team win the championship this season?” in literal terms.

For fans of the Pittsburgh Pirates, “Could this be the year?” has an entirely different meaning. For Pirates fans, more so than any other fans in North American professional sports, “Could this be the year?” translates to “Will my team win more games than it loses this season?” After 19 consecutive seasons of sub-.500 baseball, this is no secret.

Unfortunately, 2012 is again one of those years. As it stands, this Pirates team by no means resembles a legitimate World Series contender, as do the teams assembled in Los Angeles (well, one of them), New York (again, one of them), Texas, Detroit, Boston and perhaps a few other cities.

But that’s ok. We remaining Pirates diehards- we’re patient. The most patient fanbase in America, actually. After all, how anyone could support a team whose last winning season occurred when George Bush (the first one) was in office is beyond many of today’s Yankees, Red Sox and Cardinals “diehards.”

That’s how I know many of my readers will agree with me when I calmly state that this isn’t the year. Even by Pirates standards.

The Pirates lost 90 games last season, 16 more than they won. They finished 24 games behind the Milwaukee Brewers for the National League Central title and 18 behind the St. Louis Cardinals for the wildcard spot in the NL.

While some fans are predicting an enormous improvement on those numbers mainly because of an offseason that saw both Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder leave division and a Ryan Braun PED test return positive (though that has been entirely washed out for some ridiculous reason), we have to temper our expectations.

Did competition in the NL Central get weaker this offseason? Absolutely. Did it become the worst division in all of baseball? More than likely. But did the Pirates improve their own team by anything of a substantial margin? That’s up for debate.

When a team acquires a new player, its fanbase generally gets excited. The “shiny new toy” factor takes effect for a while and the new face brings along a sense of potential and possibilities, even if the player should only be considered a lateral move from the team’s previous player at the position.

That’s what I think the Pirates did this offseason. They made bunch of lateral moves.

Take the team’s situation at short stop. Is Clint Barmes an upgrade over Ronny Cedeno? Sure. Barmes’s 3.1 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) last season were better than Cedeno’s 1.4. His 12 home runs will help a power-starved offense, and his glove is more reliable at a prime defensive position, both of which are more important than the fact that he’s not a terribly good baserunner.

What fans don’t realize, though, is that Barmes will move from playing 81 games in Houston’s Minute Maid Park where the left field fence is just 315-362 feet left-left center (they it is 19 feet high), to PNC Park’s 325-383 left-left center fences. His home run numbers could certainly drop to, say, 7 or 9 this season, his WAR probably coming with it. He should be an improvement over Cedeno, but only a marginal one.

Behind the plate, the Pirates opted to sign Rod Barajas rather than retain one of or both of their previous catching duo in Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder. Both former Pirates were injury liabilities, though Barajas himself has only played 100 games in a season four times in his career. For as much of a defensive liability Pirates fans believed Doumit was, his -1.0 fielding WAR was identical to Barajas’s last season (as well as Snyder’s). Doumit also threw out 13/54 attempting base stealers last season for a 24% success rate, while Barajas nailed 20 of 80 runners for a 25% rate. The 2010 season saw Doumit throw out 12% of runners, while Barajas gunned down 15%.

Offensively, Doumit is the superior player. His career .271/.334/.404 line compares favorably to Barajas’s .238/.284/.440 line. Doumit has recorded similar or better WAR numbers in each of the last four seasons. Barajas has better power numbers which again helps a power-hungry baseball club, but I can’t call him a real upgrade over Doumit or Snyder.

Look for part two of the Pittsburgh Pirates Season Preview soon, where we’ll project player and team statistics

At first base, both Casey McGehee and Garrett Jones have had one breakout season in the major leagues, and are of essentially the same value until one of them breaks out again, and neither of them will produce like Derrek Lee did in his time here.

The team’s bullpen will look about the same as it did last season with the subtraction of Jose Veras and the re-addition of Evan Meek among some other minor changes, while the rotation is where the Pirates seem have made the most improvement.

The additions of free agent Erik Bedard and former New York Yankee A.J. Burnett should solidify what was one of the better rotations in the National League through July last season. Bedard should post a sub-4.00 ERA with the Pirates to lead the team’s starters, while there are enough factors working in Burnett’s favor that I wouldn’t be entirely surprised by a sub-4.00 ERA from him either.

Of course, these two come with their risks. The oft-injured Bedard hasn’t pitched 130 innings or made 25 starts in a season since 2007 with the Baltimore Orioles, and Burnett could prove to be washed up and that the horrendous numbers he posted in New York weren’t due to pressure from the media and fans, but rather a genuine lack of skill.

On the flip side, Jeff Karstens‘s humongous -0.89 ERA-xFIP rating in 2011 suggests he is almost certain to regress in 2012. There’s also no telling whether Charlie Morton will ever figure out how to pitch against lefties or if he can sustain his dominance against righties, or if James MacDonald will ever be able to last six, seven, eight innings into a start.

The Pirates added two better arms to their rotation, but I still don’t expect a huge improvement for the rotation as a whole.

Then there is Pedro Alvarez. Sure, the Pirates get to add a healthy Alvarez to their lineup this season, but what in the world will he do? The third baseman played 74 games last year, hitting .191 with all of four home runs on the season.  We’ve seen him hit 16 home runs and post a 1.6 WAR in 95 games his rookie season, then show up as last year’s sorry excuse for a baseball player. There’s as much evidence working against Pedro that suggest he’ll hit around .200 with limited power again as there is evidence that he’ll hit .250 with 25 home runs.

Regardless of how poor the NL Central became this offseason, the Pirates are still nowhere near the favorites to win it. The Cardinals remain a pretty freakin’ good team even without Pujols. The Brewers now have Braun for the entire season, and even the Reds have a sneaky good roster.

I just want people to keep things in perspective. I know it’s a brand new season and literally anything can happen – as we saw for the first half of last year – but think about how the poorly the Pirates had to have played to end the season at 72-90 after sitting at 53-47 before the Jerry Meals incident (they went 19-43).

Will we see this year a Pirates squad poised and passionate like the first half of 2011, or will we see a team lifeless and lacking once the losing begins? Odds are we’ll see a combination of the two, and that’s ok.

After all, finishing the year in the 76-80 win range is a step in the right direction for the organization.

And we are the most patient fanbase in America.

Follow Troy on Twitter @TroyPfaff

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