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What to Expect in 2012

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For the first four months of the 2011 season, the Pirates were relevant again. They entered the All-Star break above .500 for the first time since 1992. They had three All-Stars for the first time since 1990.

On July 18 they were in first place in the NL Central – the latest in the season they were atop the division since 1997. But the final two months weren’t as kind.  They lost 47 of their final 72 games and finished the season in fourth place, 24 games back of the division-winning Brewers.

So what is to be expected in 2012?  Here are some bold – and some not so bold – predictions…

DO EXPECT to see left fielder Jose Tabata take a step forward in his development as a legit major leaguer. Despite the hype that has surrounded him – be it due to the fact he came from the Yankees, or that he was a victim of that awkward false identity scheme last season – Tabata really hasn’t shown much at the major league level, besides being an injury-prone singles hitter. But general manager Neal Huntington doesn’t generally throw money around easily, and the fact that Tabata was given nearly $15 million guaranteed shows they believe in the type of player he can be, and that the double-digit homerun power will eventually come – just as long as he can stay on the field.

DON’T EXPECT to see Pedro Alvarez develop into the middle-of-the-order bat the Pirates so desperately need. Spring numbers mean little – when they are good. But this spring Alvarez struggled with exactly what he has failed to do throughout his young career, and what he was expected to work on this offseason – hit the outside pitch, recognize off speed pitches, hit the ball consistently with authority. Maybe playing winter ball would have been a good idea? Regardless of the fact he struck out in nearly half of his March at-bats, Alvarez will start the season in Pittsburgh. There is a good chance the results won’t be pretty.

DO EXPECT to see Andrew McCutchen bounce back from a forgettable second half of 2011 in which he hit .216 with a .330 OBP. It’s no secret that McCutchen is the team’s most gifted player, which was obvious even before the ink dried on his new six-year, $51.5-million contract. He is the rare talent that can work the count (.390 OBP in the first half of 2011), hit for power (.505 SLG in the first half of 2011) and run (78 career stolen bases in two and a half seasons). Oh, and he is only 25 years old, meaning he hasn’t even approached his prime. Developing into an eventual 30/30 player, perhaps as soon as this season, isn’t out of the question. 

DON’T EXPECT to see Jeff Karstens repeat his amazing two-month run last season in which he went 5-1 with a 1.77 ERA. It’s been written before, but Karstens repertoire doesn’t blow anyone away. His fastball isn’t fast, his breaking pitches aren’t unhittable, and even his usual control has at times escaped him this spring, with eight walks in 17 innings. Again, spring numbers obviously can be skewed, as perhaps he was working on specific pitches, or pitching to a certain location – but the fact is Karstens is a bottom of the rotation starter. On the Pirates, however, he is slated as the number two starter. 

DO EXPECT to see Eric Bedard become the most significant and successful free agent signed under Huntington’s watch (not that he is dealing with exceptional company). Four years ago Bedard was making more than $7 million a year and coming off a season in which he struck out slightly more than 30 percent of the batters he faced, which at the time was the seventh best strikeout rate in the history of the American League. This off-season, due to obvious health concerns (he has started only 54 games and thrown 293 innings over the past four seasons, missing all of 2010), Huntington signed him for one year at $4.5 million. He might be one of the most fragile pitchers in baseball, but when he has toed the rubber he’s averaged nearly a strikeout per inning and hasn’t shown much regression. Is he a lock to start 30-plus games? Probably not. But against weaker offenses in the National League, the Pirates only need him to remain relatively healthy until the All-Star break, because…

DON’T EXPECT to see Bedard finish the season in a Pirates’ uniform. The benefit of a low-risk, high-reward signing like Bedard is that if he does stay healthy and perform to his ability, he will become valuable trade bait at the deadline. Contenders are always looking for starting pitching, especially when it’s available in a cheap, pro-rated one-year deal. 

DO EXPECT to see Starling Marte in a Pirates’ uniform as a late-season call up. The Pirates were right to send him to minor league camp this spring, as he still has to work on plate discipline (he drew only 22 walks in 536 at bats last season) and his base stealing (stole 24 bases in 2011, but was caught 12 times). He also strikes out at a higher rate than photo by Pittsburgh Piratesexpected for someone without big time power, although he has been shown improvement (23 percent strikeout rate in 2010; 17.5 percent strikeout rate in 2011). Despite those shortfalls, Marte is a superior defender (18 outfield assists in 2011), perhaps someday even pushing McCutchen to a corner outfield spot, and has steadily improved in every aspect of his game. He has always hit for average, and in double-A last season he finally flashed the power potential scouts have talked about, hitting 38 doubles and 12 homeruns. The Pirates have taken their time with the 23-year-old so far, hoping that when he finally does make his major league debut it’s a permanent stay instead of a continuous shuttle from Pittsburgh to triple-A. Assuming he stays healthy, come September Marte should be here to stay.

DON’T EXPECT to see Gerrit Cole shoot up the minor league ladder. The Pirates have a propensity of dealing with prospects slowly, especially pitchers (Jameson Taillon threw only 92 innings last year, never allowed to go more than five innings at a time). While Cole is older and more seasoned than the 20-year-old Taillon, there is no rush to start his professional clock (money, after all, still runs the show). Also, he needs to train his arm to pitch every fifth day as opposed to once a week, as he was accustomed to in college.  And despite being the first overall selection and a college arm, Cole still needs to work on commanding his fastball, which he struggled with up in the zone throughout his career at UCLA, leading to higher than expected ERAs (3.37 in 2010; 3.28 in 2011). He will start the season in high-A Bradenton, and assuming he has no setbacks, will likely finish in double-A Altoona. 

DO EXPECT to see the top of the lineup generate runs this season. While Alex Presley, Tabata and McCutchen may not be pure base stealers, they all have exceptional speed and can turn singles into doubles, steal a base to put themselves in scoring position, and place pressure on the defense to make the perfect throws. Manager Clint Hurdle loves to be aggressive on the base paths, and he will take advantage of every opportunity he can to play to the lineup’s strengths.  But, with that said…

DON’T EXPECT to see the Pirates compete in many long, four-hour slugfests. While the top of the order will be the team’s strength, the projected bottom of the order doesn’t exactly excel at getting on base, as evident from their career on-base percentages (Clint Barmes: .302; Alvarez: .304; Rod Barajas: .284). Add the pitcher’s spot to the mix, and that’s at least three innings per game that have a high probability of being the three-up, three-down variety – meaning the Pirates will likely have to outscore their opponents with six innings worth of offense spread out over a nine-inning game. Which leads us to…

DO EXPECT the streak of losing to extend for at least one more season.

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