Originally written on The Baseball Page  |  Last updated 4/11/12

One key question for 15 of the 25 players the Pittsburgh Pirates took north from Spring Training, in order of most relevant to least…

1. 3B Pedro Alvarez- Will this be his breakout year, or is he written off as the middle-of-the-order impact bat the Pirates desperately need to find elsewhere?

Alvarez’s 2010 rookie debut showed Pirates’ fans flashes of what they’d been anticipating since Pittsburgh drafted him 2nd overall in 2008. But he dropped from a 112 OPS+ down to an abysmal 56 OPS+ in an injury-filled, often lackadaisical 2011, and did nothing to allay the fears of Pirates’ fans when Alvarez opted out of Winter Ball, and struggled through Spring Training. If the Pirates’ lineup hopes to have any effectiveness at all, it hinges on him.

2. SP AJ Burnett- Will he be worth the money?

The Pirates’ biggest offseason splash will cost the team $13MM over the next 2 seasons, despite the 34-year old posting ERAs of 5.26 and 5.15 the last 2 seasons. If he succeeds (at least after fully recovering from a freak orbital bone injury), Burnett provides the Bucs with a credible arm near the top of the rotation. If he fails, Burnett becomes yet another in a long line of veteran splurges in which the Pirates could have better spent their money on draft picks or their farm system.

3. SP Erik Bedard- Will he stay healthy?

Suddenly lost amid the Burnett trade hype was potentially one of GM Neal Huntington’s best free agent signings to date. Bedard is arguably the only SP on the Pirates that would actually rank highly in other teams’ rotations as well- provided he stays on the field. Bedard missed all of 2010, and parts of 2008 and 2009. If healthy, he could go 13-10 with a 3.70 ERA, and a solid K/IP.

4. OF Jose Tabata- Can he ever live up to expectations?

Despite promise after being acquired in 2008 trade with the Yankees, Tabata has yet to put up power numbers needed for today’s MLB right fielders. His best minor league home run tally is 8 (2008). Tabat’s only hit 4 HR in each of his first two MLB seasons, for a total of 8 over 753 AB, with a cumulative 100 OPS+. By OPS+ alone, he’s serviceable, and still only 23 years old, there’s room for growth. But fans are concerned with the lack of development to date, and in general, once a player hits 1,000 at bats, you have a fairly good sense at what type of player he’ll be. Unless Tabata turns it on over the first 250 AB this season, the Pirates could be looking at a solid 4th OF, but lacking the bat to be a full-time regular.

5. INF Casey McGehee- Can he still be a solid middle-of-the-order bat, or is he bound for the bench?

A very under-the-radar offseason trade could wind of being one of Huntington’s best, if McGehee rebounds to 2009 (.859 OPS) or even 2010 (.801 OPS) form. But the former Brewer posted a nasty .626 OPS last year, which the light-hitting Pirates’ lineup can ill afford. McGehee will get early shots spelling a shaky Alvarez at the hot corner. If he does well, look for him to be moved across the diamond to 1B full time.

6-7. SP Charlie Morton and Jeff Karstens- What do the Pirates really have here?

Both players rebounded from AAAA purgatory to post phenomenal 1st halves in 2011, only to somewhat drop back to Earth down the stretch. Was it just a case of fatigue on arms not used to the workload, or was it a simple regression to the norm? Either way, the Pirates clearly have more here than most fans thought at the start of 2011…but whether either can emerge as consistent, reliable starters remains to be seen.

8. SP James McDonald- Can he be a mid-rotation starter, or is he stuck as a #4 or 5?

James McDonald still shows flashes of #2 starter talent, posting K/9?s of 7.7 (2009), 8.5 (2010), and 7.5 (2011). But his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) rose to 1.485 last season, as did his ERA (4.21). McDonald is a perfectly capable back of rotation arm, but coudl be so much more. In the current rotation, only Erik Bedard has a better career K/9.

9. CF Andrew McCutchen- Does he hit with enough power to move to LF, paving the way for AAA Starling Marte in CF? The only reason McCutchen is down at #8 is because he’s one of the very few Pirates from which fans can expect consistent production, with OPS+ of 121, 121, and 127 over the past 3 years. Despite cooling over the 2nd half of 2011, Andrew still finished the campaign with 23 HR and an .820 OPS. If he matches or exceeds that production in the 1st half of 2012- and boffo CF prospect Starling Marte tears up AAA- the Pirates may clear his path by moving McCutchen to LF, creating an excellent defensive tandem, albeit light on HR.

Presley; image credit Justin K. Aller

10. LF Alex Presley- Was 2011 a fluke, or a sign of production to come?

The Pirates rarely have a player come out of nowhere to succeed, but they had just that in Alex Presley in 2011. Never rated among the Pirates’ top farmhands, Presley earned his shot with pure production that actually improved as he ascended the minor league ladder, culminating in an impressive 121 OPS+ (.804 OPS) Major League showing in 2011. Like Tabata, power isn’t a part of Presley’s repertoire, so for him to remain in a July OF of McCutchen and Starling Marte, he’ll have to continue getting on base. Drawing more walks wouldn’t hurt, as Presley only worked 13 free passes over 215 AB in 2011. 11. 2B Neil Walker- Will he settle into a consistent spot in the lineup? Walker was arguably the victim of hitting well early in 2011 while the rest of the team was struggling, causing a possibly overzealous (manager) Clint Hurdle to bat Walker cleanup- a spot the switch-hitting Pennsylvania product should never be. Once there, Walker understandably appeared to press, and his production declined. Hurdle would be best served to slot Walker into his “ideal” lineup position- perhaps 2nd or 6th- and leave him there, regardless of the middle of the lineup’s follies. Even with his .742 OPS in 2011, Walker still finished at a 105 OPS+. Compared to other MLB 2B, he’s solid. At this point, Hurdle needs to provide him consistency. 12-13. C Rod Barajas and SS Clint Barmes- Will either do anything to justify their salaries? In an offseason that saw Huntington make smart, cost-effective acquisitions of Bedard and McGehee, he could’ve easily blown $15,000,000+ on these two mid-30-somethings, both of which are OBP black holes. Further, both are washes defensively with the younger players (Doumit, Cedeno) they replaced. A 7-8-9 of Barajas, Barmes, and the pitcher’s spot will suck the production out of the bottom 1/3 of the lineup if these two don’t find a way to buck their career trends.   14-15. CL Joel Hanrahan and OF Garrett Jones- Are either Pirates by the end of the season? Over the past 4 years, GM Neal Huntington has moved almost all of the tradeable commodities off of this team, and has few remaining. These two are now the most frequently-mentioned trade targets of other teams, with Hanrahan drawing serious interest from the Rangers- and Jones the AL West-rival A’s- at last year’s trade deadline. Their destiny is entirely reliant on the Pirates’ success this year. If the team is in contention again come July, expect both to stay. If not, Jones is probably a near-lock to be moved, and Hanrahan could pack his bags if the right prospets were offered. If out of contention, the Pirates could get by without either of them; but unlike previous trades, Huntington has to get legitimate prospect value in return- especially for Hanrahan, as consistent closers are coveted each deadline by teams routinely willing to overpay for a stretch run. Thanks for reading. Coming soon- Key Questions for some of the Pirates’ Top Farmhands.




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