Many times in life, what we expect to happen does not come close to what actually happens. We have to adjust our plans accordingly and move on, whether it is a positive change or a negative one. The same should be true with expectations as they relate to the Pirates.
Expectation #1 — Andrew McCutchen will be a low power/high stolen base CF
When the outstanding high school outfielder draft class of 2005 was just getting started in the minors, nearly every national publication had them ranked as — Justin Upton….huge gap….Jay Bruce, Cameron Maybin, Colby Rasmus, then Andrew McCutchen. The consensus among the prospectors in 2006 and 2007 was that McCutchen would be behind the others due to his perceived deficit of power compared to the others. Everyone was dazzled by Maybin’s tools and chose to overlook his huge red flag of strikeout totals. Personally, I was of the opinion that McCutchen would be the steadiest of the five. I thought the others would be prone to high peaks, followed by seasons of slumping, while McCutchen would just plug along hitting .290, getting 12-15 HR’s and stealing 40 bases.
Justin Upton got to the majors as a regular before the other four players, but the case could be made that the gap between Upton and McCutchen (who I consider the 2nd best of those 5) is rapidly shrinking. That’s assuming that a gap even exists at all, as McCutchen has the positional advantage over the RF Upton and due to Upton’s propensity for strikeouts.
So the expectation for McCutchen has greatly changed for the better from his days in the minors. Here are some excerpts from his final writeup in Baseball America’s Top 10 before the start of the 2009 season:
McCutchen is susceptible to breaking pitches, in part because he gets pull-happy, and his power hasn’t developed as hoped. He’s slow getting out of the batter’s box, which prevents him from getting as many infield hits as his speed suggests he should.
He once looked like a No. 3 hitter, but now profiles as a leadoff man.
Obviously some outstanding offseason conditioning and normal maturation have led McCutchen into his current role as Face of the Franchise and a fixture in the #3 spot of the lineup.
Expectation #2 — Pedro Alvarez will be a perennial All-Star with huge power
When you’re drafted 2nd overall, as Alvarez was in 2008, there are a different set of expectations placed on you. There’s even more pressure when you were the consensus best talent in the 2008 draft after your sophomore year in 2007. Alvarez’s hamate injury allowed other players like Brian Matusz, Buster Posey, and the eventual #1 pick, Tim Beckham to enter the discussion, but Alvarez was still viewed as a monster-in-training.
All of this ignored his somewhat sizeable strikeout totals in college (greater than 20% of his plate appearances), which then carried over into his minor-league sojourn. Alvarez was accelerated through the minors, disregarding his high strikeout rates again, and made his debut in 2010.
The Ballad of Pedro Alvarez is a well-sung tune at this point to Pirate fans, but the quick recap is — tantalizing debut in 2010 (after a shaky start) with respect to power potential, a complete and utter failure and lost year in 2011, huge pandemonium and teeth-gnashing in 2012 after another shaky start, followed by joyful rejoicing during a crazy hot streak, then he’s OK with everyone again this past week on the heels of not much power for a while.
It’s hard to get a read of the course of his Pirates’ career, but it seems as if Pedro will be a low average (is .250 too much to ask for?) and high strikeout hitter. That might be a Mark Reynolds-type of hitter, but with at least average defense unlike Reynolds. Alvarez was viewed as a franchise savior on draft day, but now he may be a key complementary player in the lineup. Instead of .270 with 40 HR’s, he may be a .240 guy with 25-28 HR’s. There is huge value in that, especially in today’s depressed 3B market around the majors (itself a Fluid Expectation), but it may not be what was his path was hoped for in the eyes of many.
The first two examples were meant to show how all of us, including those of us here at Pirates Prospects, have to be willing to constantly re-adjust our expectations about the Pirates and the major and minor league players. It is very easy to see a pitcher in Low A doing well and say, “OK…pitcher X will be up in 4 years and we can slot him in as a #3 pitcher. With Pitcher X, Pitcher Q, and Pitcher R leading the rotation, we don’t need any more pitching and can start trading away all pitchers making more than $2 million.”
This happens with hitters too, of course. Many times we get a question about a Marte or Grossman doing well and hear, “Where will the Pirates play all these guys? We can start trading Presley and Tabata to make room right now.” Players stall out, or need adjustment time, or get injured. There is no one linear progression for all players. There’s also nothing wrong with having depth, especially in areas like pitching and the OF where you can stash multiple players, in the case of an injury or ineffectiveness.
All of this preamble brings me to my third and final expectation example:
Expectation #3 — The Pirates are not contenders this year, so let’s trade everything not bolted down
As Yogi Berra might say, “It’s deja vu all over again” for the Pirates in 2012. Going into this season, I predicted 78 wins for the Pirates. I liked the acquistion of Burnett, thought the signing of Bedard was shrewd, and thought the Barmes/Barajas signings were solid, if unspectacular. This season is shaping up in an eerily similar fashion to 2011. Slow start in April, followed by a consolidation month in May was how 2011 started for the Pirates. It was fueled by a pitching staff that was pitching well above expectations (especially Kevin Correia and Jeff Karstens), In 2011, the Pirates made their noise in June and July, until running out of steam in late July around the 100 game mark.
Perhaps you’ve heard or read that in 2012, the Pirates don’t have that great of an offense. However, the Pitcher Whisperer known as Ray Searage has coaxed the staff into career bests for most of them, which has allowed the Pirates to come out of Memorial Day with a 24-24 record. This mark puts them 3 games back of the division lead. With a 2nd wild card in play, plus a plethora of terrible teams in the National League, it is not the most ridiculous idea to think the Pirates can hang around the periphery of the wild card race if they get 1 or 2 more bats.
Absolutely no one in the offices on Federal Street will admit this, but there is a lot of value in shedding The Streak that hangs on this franchise’s back like a 1000 pound barnacle. Getting rid of The Streak will show prospective free agents that Pittsburgh is a team on the rise and committed to winning. It will help their own internal players during their decisions on whether or not to sign a potential long-term extension with the team. It helps with corporate sponsorships. It helps restore a modicum of civic pride in a once-proud franchise. And for those who have offices on Federal Street at PNC Park, it gets the stinkin’ media and talk-show callers off their backs…for at least 7 good minutes.
I’m proposing a 3 tiered approach to what the Pirates can do to bolster the team, both for 2012 and in the near future:
1. Trade Joel Hanrahan to a contender looking for a “proven closer”.
Tim has extensively covered this on Pirates Prospects in recent weeks, but to boil it down — The Pirates have multiple in-house options to replace Hanrahan (Grilli, Cruz, Lincoln), plus Bryan Morris in AAA and potentially Victor Black in AA. Hanrahan has been a wonder for the Pirates after his arrival from the Nationals in the Nyjer Morgan-Lastings Milledge deal, but if a team out there is willing to give up a quality prospect or two for the Hammer, then do it.
2. Trade a package of prospects to a team already out of contention for a bat.
Let me preface this by saying that Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon are not in play in this scenario. A deal can be done without having to give them up in the package. There are already some teams (Twins, Cubs, Padres, Royals, as examples) that are out of it and should be looking to shed salaries and continue to acquire prospects. I have a whole list of players that I would like to see the Pirates attempt to acquire, but I’ll hold off on my thoughts here at Pirates Prospects until there is a rumor attached that links the Pirates to one of those players. Otherwise, it’s just pure speculation that spreads like wildfire.
Needless to say, I’m looking at players that fill either a hole at 1B or corner OF. A team like the Twins, for example, has a scorched earth pitching staff right now with little interesting talent on the horizon from their farm system. A package of AAA arms, both starters and relievers, and perhaps a high-end low level prospect would be a tempting package if they decide to shed salary and look to the future.
3. Continue to make incremental improvements from within.
This is the most nebulous of the three, but the easiest one to attempt. Already the Pirates have improved incrementally by dropping Nate McLouth and recalling Matt Hague (thanks for taking one for the team on Saturday night, Matt). Gorkys Hernandez may be a marginal improvement as well, for however long he stays here. At least these two guys did something notable, which is more than can be said for McLouth or some other slumping veterans.
Jordy Mercer appears to be next in line for a promotion. Whether that will be as the full-time starter at SS or a job-share with Barmes is unclear at this point. But his name has entered the conversation, both online and in print in the Post-Gazette over the weekend, so it seems as if his arrival is imminent. It also helps that he has been swinging a hot bat, albeit one without a great deal of power.
There is nothing noticeable in Neil Walker’s batted ball statistical data (BABIP, LD%, Swing%) that highlights why his power production is down so drastically this year. There’s a spike in his infield fly ball rate and it appears that he is not faring well against the fastball in 2012, but nothing glaring. There has to be hope that he will break out of his power lethargy and provide the Pirates with another consistent professional bat with some power.
Nothing in life is static. Rather, all decision making processes have to be fluid and dynamic. Just because it appeared that the Pirates were not in the contention picture at the outset of 2012, it does not mean that the expectations can’t be changed mid-stream. The lessons learned by both the staff and the front office during 2011′s 100-game run are directly impacting the team during 2012 so far. The emergence of James McDonald as one of the 10 best pitchers in all of the National League is a huge boon.
The Pirates have 114 games left in the season. They might as well try to win more of them than they lose. Novel concept, I know, but it’s one worth pursuing.