Originally posted on Raise the Jolly Roger!  |  Last updated 5/29/12
Let me start this off by saying that I’m fully aware the odds are still against this Pirates team. It’s going to be hard to do much of anything with such a meager offense, and the pitching probably won’t be top-5 all season. Plus–especially after last year–we’re all going to be waiting for a collapse…because they’re the Pirates. Regardless, after all the doom and gloom that was surrounding this team after two series losses last week, here’s a more optimistic take on things: The schedule: We heard all about how the Pirates faced a rough schedule early on, and that has certainly proved to be the case. The Pirates entered Monday’s action tied for the second-toughest strength-of-schedule rank in the NL, and the only two NL teams they haven’t played yet are two of the three worst (Padres and Brewers). The other one of those three is the Cubs, who the Pirates play thirteen more times. If the Pirates can take care of business against the teams they should beat (which would require them getting the Milwaukee monkey off their back…but Milwaukee has been awful so far this year), they will have a great chance to rack up wins in a hurry as they did this weekend. The Bucs have done an excellent job beating bad teams up to this point–the only series they lost against a team currently under .500 was the one at Detroit last weekend. The Pirates face a modest interleague schedule this year — they’ve got Detroit again, as well as awful Minnesota and Kansas City at home. They’ll travel to upstart Baltimore and Cleveland, but avoid the traditional AL powerhouses. As for the division, their nemesis Brewers are really struggling, and the Bucs have been more than competitive against the rest of the NL Central so far this season. They’ve already got at least one series out of the way with every team in the powerful NL East (and did so with a winning record). Looking strictly at the schedule, it’s pretty clear to me that the Pirates have a fairly legitimate shot at hanging around the playoff hunt for a while. That is, if.. The pitching is less likely to collapse: It’s no secret how good the pitching has been. James McDonald has taken on the role of an ace,while Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett have essentially been as good as we could have hoped. It’s true that Charlie Morton and Kevin Correia have been shaky, but the Bucs appear to have some depth with Jeff Karstens on his way back, Brad Lincoln pitching very well, and some arms in AAA looking much better than they did a year ago. The Pirates’ bullpen has also been lights-out, and also has some pretty decent depth in AAA. The numbers indicate that this staff isn’t just getting lucky. A big reason for that is that these guys are getting a reasonable amount strikeouts rather than relying completely on defense. The Pirates’ FIP (3.62) and xFIP (3.81)–two fielding independent stats that essentially try to predict future pitching performance based on current results–are relatively in line with their strong ERA (3.22). That wasn’t the case last season. Similarly, their .280 BABIP-against and 9.3% HR/FB rate are better than the league averages, but are far from red flags indicating serious impending regression.  The staff is due for some regression, sure, but not nearly as much as we saw last August. Additionally, the Bucs should get a boost if/when Correia (who has definitely been quite lucky to this point despite his mediocre numbers) is removed from the rotation for Karstens. The offense should get better: We’ve seen the bats come around these last two days, but the Pirates still have a long way to go to get out of the cellar in several offensive statistics. Still, things have been looking up a bit lately. If Pedro Alvarez can get hot again–even for a week or so–that would be huge. He’s shown the capability to get hot for stretches and appears to be on the verge of doing so right now. Rod Barajas has essentially returned to the level of production we expected from him. Jose Tabata and Neil Walker have the talent to turn things around, and both have shown flashes of improvement lately. Matt Hague probably isn’t going to be a long-term answer at first base, but he’s almost sure to be more productive than the struggling Casey McGehee. Clint Barmes is still looking awful, but Josh Harrison has shown that he can fill in for him nicely and Jordy Mercer has been on fire in AAA. Those two should ensure that the Pirates at least get something out of the shortstop position if Barmes doesn’t wake up. Trades? As we saw last season, Neal Huntington is capable of being a “buyer” to fill a need through a trade. It’s probably not going to happen soon, and he’s probably not going to bring in an impact bat. BUT, if the Pirates can continue to stick around in the race though July, and they still need help somewhere (which they surely will), Huntington will almost be forced to make a similar move. For all the (much-deserved) grief people give him about being unable to spot hitters, he found a good one in Derrek Lee last season at the trade deadline. Another pickup like that would be ideal and feasible. The Pirates don’t have a whole lot of great trade chips in the minors, but something could probably be had with their pitching depth at the upper levels. And if he’s feeling bold, I’d be all for dangling Joel Hanrahan if a team would be willing to overpay for a great closer (as several did this offseason). Joel has been excellent, but the overvaluing of closers and the Pirates’ bullpen depth make him the most replaceable-yet-valuable trade chip on the big-league roster. Again, plenty of things can go wrong this season (and honestly, many probably will). There’s a long way to go. But…for every reason to think these Pirates will fall apart and sink to their 20th consecutive losing season, I’ve got a reason to believe they have a shot at making a little noise in the NL Central. ©2012 Raise the Jolly Roger. All Rights Reserved..
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