Originally posted on The Outside Corner  |  Last updated 3/23/12

For a brief time this past July, the Pirates were in first place in the NL Central. The Pittsburgh Pirates, in first place, after the All-Star Break, in 2012. This is real life. Then, they summarily collapsed and finished in fourth place with 90 losses. This offseason, they took a huge step towards building a solid future by giving Andrew McCutchen a nice contract extension. But then, they did some things that just seemed to be typical Pirates.

Pirates on TOC
End of Season Postmortem
Top Ten Prospects
You May Say I'm a Dreamer

Depth Chart (as of 3/23) 
C: Rod Barajas
1B: Garrett Jones
2B: Neil Walker
SS: Clint Barmes
3B: Pedro Alvarez
LF: Alex Presley
CF: Andrew McCutchen
RF: Jose Tabata
SP: Erik Bedard
SP: Jeff Karstens
SP: James McDonald
SP: Kevin Correia
SP: Charlie Morton
CL: Joel Hanrahan

New Faces
The Pirates looked to end their season of tumult behind the plate in 2011 by adding stable veteran Rod Barajas, which should help their largely young pitching. The team also picked up a new shortstop in another veteran, Clint Barmes. Pittsburgh also added a pair of veteran starters in Erik Bedard, and former bane of the Yankees AJ Burnett. The Pirates also traded for former Brewers third baseman Casey McGahee, and brought former Buc Nate McLouth back into town.

Departures
Long-time Pirate Paul Maholm had his huge option declined, and signed with the division rival Cubs. Three of the Pirates plethora of catchers last season, Jason Jaramillo, Chris Snyder, and Ryan Doumit, both also left town. Last year's mid-season acquisitions, Derrek Lee and Ryan Ludwick, both aren't returning, with Lee possibly opting for retirement and Ludwick signing with the Reds. Last season's starting shortstop, the defensive-minded Ronny Cedeno, wasn't retained for 2012. A pair of bench players, Pedro Ciriaco and Brandon Wood, also left town. Fourth outfielder Xavier Paul was DFAed, starter Ross Ohlendorf was released, and reliever Jose Veras was traded to Milwaukee in the McGahee deal.

Impact Rookies
The Priates are actually going with a slightly more veteran squad this season, with no rookies in the starting lineup or rotation. Utilityman Yamaico Navarro looks like he'll be on the Opening Day bench. Top prospect Starling Marte could push Alex Presley for playing time in left field once he gets his feet wet in AAA. If any of the rotation members struggle, Jeff Locke looks ready to roll in AAA. 

Position Battles
Pedro Alvarez is being given every chance to start at third base due to his pedigree, but if he continues to be terrible offensively, the veteran McGahee will get more playing time. 

Injury Concerns
Burnett, who the team brought in from New York for a song, will miss the first month or two after fracturing his orbital bone on a bunt attempt. Yup, that's *so* Pirates.

Burning Question
Andrew McCutchen has taken the next step towards superstardom. Will Neil Walker, Jose Tabata, and Pedro Alvarez follow him this season?

Best Case
McCutchen, Tabata, Alvarez, and Walker create a fearsome quartet in the Pirates order to help power the offense. The starting pitching vastly improves with the additions of veterans Bedard and Burnett. The Pirates still finish fourth in the division, but crack the .500 mark for the first time in 20 years.

Worst Case
McCutchen is the only player on offense worth more than 2.0 fWAR. Bedard and Burnett miss time due to injury, and when they're healthy, they're ineffective. Pittsburgh once again loses 90 games and languishes at the bottom of the NL Central.

Realistic Prediction
I don't think the Pirates can win the division, but I think threatening .500 isn't totally out of the question. It would take a perfect storm of good fortune to happen, but it's not totally out of the realm of possibility. However, the NL Central is loaded this season. If the Pirates finish fourth, it should be considered a successful year.

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This article first appeared on The Outside Corner and was syndicated with permission.

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