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ESPN's Buster Olney on the Pirates

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PSR's Joe Giardina caught up with Buster Olney of ESPN to get his assessment of the Pirates, the National League Central, and why Pedro Alvarez is the most important player in a Pirates uniform.

Joe: Do you think the departure of Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, as well as the Reds emptying their farm system in a couple trades, alters the future of this division?
“Yeah, I don’t think there’s any question. And it’s interesting, because I think when we were assessing the A.J. Burnett trade, that’s one of the things you took into account. He goes from the American League East to the National League Central, where the lineups will look pretty different, with teams going through a full restructuring and rebuilding.”
Joe: How do you see the division playing out in 2012? 
“If I had to pick a division winner today, pre-Spring Training, pre-possible injuries, I’d pick the Cardinals to win.  I saw Matt Holliday last week down in Tennessee, and I said ‘Boy, I think you guys have a chance to actually win more regular season games than you did last year.’  And he agreed, because they’ll have Adam Wainwright for the whole year, their bullpen situation is much more settled than it was in the first half of the year, before they got Jason Motte in there.  David Freese might take a big step forward.  And you know, Carlos Beltran is kind of underrated in people not understanding exactly how good he was last year when he was playing with the Mets and the Giants.”
Joe: The Reds gave up a lot to get Mat Latos from the Padres. But is he a good fit in Cincinnati?
“There would have to be questions about him, because he is the type of guy you figure the Padres would want to keep. The fact that they traded him raises some questions about how good he is. And you don’t know how he is going to respond. It might be that, at his age, he’ll go through some emotional growth that makes him better. But to me, if you were going to ask who is the biggest wild card in that division, it’s Matt Latos. Because if he’s really good, the way he was a couple of years ago with the Padres, he could be the difference between the Reds winning and losing the division. But if he’s not as good, it’s hard to imagine the Reds having enough, in my eyes, to beat the Cardinals.”

Joe: Edwin Jackson reportedly turned down more money and more years from the Pirates to sign with the Nationals. Roy Oswalt reportedly also told the Pirates he wasn’t interested. Luring legit free agents to Pittsburgh seems to be a real problem, doesn’t it?
"They’ve kind of got ‘confederate money,’ and I stole that phrase from (former Pirates GM) Sid Thrift, who coined it. But if you think right now, you’d probably have the Orioles, the Pirates and the Mariners being the three with confederate money. They seem to be picking from just a different menu than some of the other teams. But that can change. If they start to win, then maybe that becomes the place where people want to go. I mean, who would have guessed three years ago that the Marlins would be the most aggressive team and land big-name free agents like they did this offseason?”
Joe: The Pirates made a couple changes to their rotation for this season with Erik Bedard and A.J. Burnett. Could this be an underrated starting rotation in 2012, and maybe one of the better ones the team has had in recent memory?
“They could be. Bedard is a big ‘if.’ I tweeted out something the other day and got a bunch of Pirates’ fans barking at me, but he’s made 39 starts in three years. He has unbelievable injury history. Probably 50 percent of the time, he’s given return to his particular team. 
I think the A.J. Burnett deal is a win for them, and it’s going to turn out to be a really good deal. I think he is going to go over there and have success in a different environment and in a different pressure. Let’s face it, when the Pirates were relevant for the first three-and-a-half months of last season, it was because of their rotation, because they were giving them a chance. When they went south is when the rotation pretty much crumbled.
You root for teams like the Pirates and Royals to get back in the conversation and make a dent. And, again it’s only as a baseball fan, I don’t know the economics of it, but part of me is really rooting for the Pirates to find some way to keep Andrew McCutchenphoto by Nicholas Stafford. I have to believe that if they continue to struggle, that probably would increase the likelihood that they are going to struggle to keep him.”
Joe:  Who is the most important player for the Pirates in 2012?
“Pedro Alvarez. You know he’s a difference-making player, because if he’s right, then suddenly you’ve got a corner infielder who is capable of hitting 30 homeruns, because he has big-time, huge power. He spent a lot of this offseason down in Nashville, and I was down there [like Alvarez, Olney is also a Vanderbilt alum]. A lot of Vanderbilt people told me he looks really good. And they say he worked his tail off. I hope for him that it all works out, because this is a crossroads year for him. If he has another down year, then he is going to be viewed very differently going forward. He goes from being a prospect to a suspect if he has the kind of season he had last year. And if he steps up and has a huge a year – hits 25 to 30 homeruns, hits .250, drives in 80 to 90 runs – then their lineup looks very different, because they have a lot of nice players. McCutchen is obviously a guy you build around, Neil Walker is a good hitter. They’ve got some other good guys, but they need that bopper right in the middle, and that’s why I think he is the key guy.”

For more on Olney's thoughts about the Pirates and the N.L. Central, check out this month's Pittsburgh Sports Report, available at any western Pennsylvania Dick's Sporting Goods, or online digitally at www.pittsburghsportsreport.com.

Neil Walker’s contract expires after the 2016 season. The Pirates second baseman is due for a big raise in arbitration this offseason—likely to $10 million—and signing him to a long-term extension will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $12-$15 million annually.
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