For the second straight year, the Pittsburgh Pirates were among the top teams in the National League mid-way through the season. For the twentieth straight year, the Pirates ended the season with a sub-.500 record.
The Pirates used great starting pitching to race out to a 67-43 record after 110 games. They needed only 15 wins in their finals 52 games to end the longest stretch of futility in professional sports history. They won just 12. Despite the near-historic collapse of the Pirates, the 2012 season held many bright spots for a franchise on the definite upswing.
The Pirates picked up right hander A.J. Burnett in an off-season trade with the New York Yankees. Burnett missed the start of the season after fouling a bunt off his face, but when he made his debut, he wasted little time in establishing himself as one of the better starters in the Senior Circuit. After consecutive seasons in New York posting ERA over five, Burnett worked better than 200 innings for the Buccos and wound up 16-10 with a 3.51 ERA.
The Pirates also got great work from right hander James McDonald, who easily could have been an all-star after leading the NL in ERA at the break. As much as McDonald was a big part of the solution for Pittsburgh in the first half, he also represented the problem in the collapse. McDonald turned in a brutal 7.52 ERA in the second half and wound up being removed from the rotation.
McDonald certainly wasn’t the only culprit down the stretch. Veteran southpaw Erik Bedard, like so many others in the Pirate rotation, turned in a few highlight reel efforts prior to the break, but was so dismal afterward that he was eventually released with an ERA of 5.01.
If the offense had been a bit better, there wouldn’t have been so much pressure on the pitching staff to continue to carry the load. Centerfielder Andrew McCutchen used the 2012 season as his personal coming out party and served notice to National League fans that the best player in the league does patrol center, but doesn’t do so for the Dodgers. McCutchen was an all-star and competed in the home run derby, which is accomplishment enough for a guy who stands just 5’10″ and weighs in at just 185 lbs. McCutchen was the front-runner for the NL MVP award before the dismal 7-21 month of September that plunged his club into the depths of yet another losing season. As it stood, Cutch set new career highs in most offensive categories and lead the league with 194 base hits. His .327/.400/.553 line included 31 homers and 96 RBI.
McCutchen was joined by Garrett Jones (27 HR, .832 OPS) and Pedro Alvarez (30 HR, 85 RBI), who each turned in strong offensive campaigns for the Pirates. Second baseman Neil Walker added 14 home runs and a .768 OPS, but missed much of the final month of the season due to injury. Unfortunately, there was very little production from the shortstop, left field, and first base positions.
Manager Clint Hurdle came under a lot of fire as the season drew to a close, but retains his job for at least one more year. GM Neil Huntington is under a good deal of pressure to add enough pieces to take the next step as a franchise. Pittsburgh had a payroll of just under $52 million in 2012 and, despite the early-season success, drew just barely 2 million fans to PNC Park; the second-lowest total in the NL. Simply based on the contract status of much the roster, payroll almost has to increase in 2013, but the Pirates have a history of tight purse strings. It’s unlikely to happen, though an infusion of $15-20 million could go a long way toward bridging the gap between where the Pirates are today and a spot in the post season.
The Pirates received cash in the deal that brought in Burnett and in a deal that added Wandy Rodriguez from the Astros, but the pair of starters will still eat up almost twenty percent of Pittsburgh’s projected payroll next season unless one or both are dealt away this Winter. The Pirates will see significant raises through arbitration given to the bulk of their key pieces. Jones, Walker, McDonald, Joel Hanrahan, and Travis Snider lead a pack of players who will see a jump in salary next season. McCutchen, who signed a long-term deal, is in line to earn $4 million more in 2013 than he did in 2012.
The biggest areas of need for the Pirates are not easily filled. Shortstop Clint Barmes turned in a horrendous season at the plate, but is owed $5.5 million for next season. That might be small change for many clubs, but the Pirates are unlikely to eat such a contract. Instead, Barmes will get every opportunity to earn his paycheck next year. It’s just unlikely to end well for the Pirates, at least from an offensive standpoint. Set-up man Jason Grilli is a free agent and will cost much more after a season where he fanned nearly 14 batters per nine innings. The Buccos will also look to add an arm or two if they can find a bargain.
20013 will be a critical season for the Pirates, who have been trending upward as a franchise for the past couple of years. McCutchen is the real deal and will only get better. Continued improvement from Alvarez could transform the third baseman into a legitimate middle-of-the-order hitter. Snider and Jose Tabata are both talented hitters and both still years away from their prime. The pressure will be squarely on the shoulders of Hurdle to try deliver Pittsburgh’s first winning season since Barry Bonds roamed the outfield at Three Rivers Stadium.
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