As I spent a little time earlier today thinking about the Pirates upcoming season, I couldn’t help but stop on virtuall every single player and think “wow, he’s got something to prove this year”. That kind of thing often is present when teams put it all together for a surprising run at success. Or it can be present when a team has a massive disappointment. Only time will tell what is in store for the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates, but we decided to take a look at each member of the Pirates and break down exactly what they have to prove in 2012, and how that will impact the team’s success this coming season.
3. Neil Walker Walker has the city in the palm of his hand. Being the local kid, loving his hometown and saying and doing everything right, he is hands down the leader of this team and a forever fan favorite. He’s also the guy most likely to be in a Pirates uniform for a very long time as there is no way the front office could ever afford to trade him or let him go. So if you play on buying a Pirates jersey anytime soon, you can’t go wrong with Walker (or Tabata, thanks to him long term deal).
But on the field, we still don’t really know if he is the guy who hit .360 during the awesome July in Pittsburgh last year, or the guy who hit .227 and .213 in May and June, respectively. Walker probably gets a bit of a free pass when it comes to performance, as he plays hard and wants to win, and the fans love him. But what they would really love is a career year for the switch hitting 2B. His .297 average in .2010 was great, but his home run totals stayed at 12 for a second consecutive season this year while his batting average and OPS dipped from .811 to .742.
For the Pirates to take a next step, it would be great to see Walker get to that 15-20 HR area with an average closer to 2010 than 2011, and his clutch hitting / RBI totals to stay at where they were last year when he drove in 83 runs. Walker has a chance to be a big time second baseball and All Star, but he really needs to show this year if he is going to be a good baseball player or a very good / great baseball player.
2. Pedro Alvarez To say that expectations and pressure are through the roof on Pedro this year would be an understatement. He has been considered the future of the franchise ever since he was drafted and signed a rookie contract, and then changed and re-signed his rookie contract. Pedro has plenty of room to improve, as his decent 2010 rookie season was followed up by an absolutely horrendous 2011. A .256 average and 16 home runs in 2010 set expectations of 30 HR season after season and being the #4 hitter in a Pirates lineup for years to come. But the disappointment of an embarassing .191 average and 4 HR’s has fans and management wondering if he even has a future in big league baseball.
The Pirates absolutely need Pedro to be the player that they hoped for if they are going to have any chance at contending in the future. But when you digress like Pedro did in 2011, you have to wonder what the issue is. No player needs to start off with a good spring training more than Pedro Alvarez, and then keep it going into April. If Alvarez can figure things out and put together a season equal or better than his rookie year, then the Pirates will challenge the .500 mark and perhaps contend in a down NL Central this year. But if he gets off to a slow start, he’ll likely be getting his at bats in Indianapolis while the Pirates bide time to determine if he has a future at all in this organization. Bill James projects Pedro to bounce back with a .252 average and 19 home runs, which would be a welcome season, although not nearly what was expected of him even last season. If he can surpass those projections, then this Pirates team is not very far from contending. No pressure, Pedro.
1. And the number one player with something to prove in 2012… Andrew McCutchen Cutch is hands down the Pirates player most likely to become a big time star in Major League Baseball. McCutchen will be 25 years old this entire season, turning 26 in October, and is in his last season before becoming eligible for arbitration. That means that he is just starting to enter the prime of his career at a time that could be financially lucrative to him. But he’s never hit .290 and is coming off a .259 season with an OPS of .820. He had good numbers in 2011, with 23 HR and 23 SB, but he didn’t have superstar numbers. He was 5.5 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) so he definitely had a great year. And to put that in perspective, NL MVP Ryan Braun was a 7.7 WAR in 2011. So McCutchen had a terrific year. But what is his ceiling? And more importantly, what is reasonable for 2012?
It is no secret that how Cutch goes, so go the Pirates in 2012. His defense is going to be there. He gets to everything and defensively, he saves the pitching staff runs just by patrolling centerfield. He led the National League in a stat called Range Factor / game, so his defensive value is proven and established. Assuming he stays healthy, is there any reason to doubt that Cutch could get his average up around the .286 he was at in 2009 or 2010? I personally think he could get that average up to .290 and be a 30/30 guy as a reasonable, yet very successful season. Bill James projects Cutch to hit .277 with 19 HRs, 27 SB’s and 74 RBI. Not a bad season, but none of which would be career highs.
If he’s going to be the highest paid player on the team in 2013 (and he likely will be after signing either an extension or getting a deal through arbitation), then he needs to take that next step toward becoming a big time outfielder. Not that there is anything wrong with consistently being the type of player he was last year, but I don’t think that is good enough for him. And for that reason, Andrew McCutchen is the #1 player on the 2012 Pirates with something to prove.
Jack Wilson, for many reasons, was quite a fan favorite in Pittsburgh. He was never a great hitter, was always a pretty good fielder, and always busted his tail for the black and gold. As a fan, you felt like he wanted to be here, and despite having California roots, Jack always seemed to feel like a Pittsburgh guy. A lot of the Pirate fan base was upset when Jumpin Jack Flash was traded to the Seattle Mariners a couple of years ago, and since the Pirates didn’t get much in return, aside from a lesser shortstop replacement (sorry Ronny), some minor league players, and some magic beans, those fans had every right in the world to be resentful. After all, if this team isn’t going to be winning, at least let me sit and watch guys that I like, or that I can relate to.
I, for one, thought that it would take this team a long time to find another player who defined the face of the franchise the way that Jack Wilson did. The Pirates had many better players during Jack’s tenure as Bucco shortstop - Jason Bay, Freddie Sanchez, Brian Giles, etc. - but none of them had the love of the fanbase quite like Jack had captured. It would take someone truly special to replace Jack as that ‘face of the franchise’. It would take someone who truly “gets it”. Someone who works their rear end off, and hustles on every play, who wants this team to win, and who truly wants to be a Pittsburgh Pirate. And if that someone could even be from Pittsburgh, that would be the icing on the cake. I know, what are the odds of that ever happening? Well, until Neil Walker was called up from the minor leagues last May, anyway.
I don’t think there is any better person, let alone player, to open this blog’s infant history with than Neil Walker. In less than a full season, Walker has become the single most popular player on the Pittsburgh Pirates. Like Jack’s situation, there are probably better players on the team – Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, probably Jose Tabata – but this Pirates team became Neil’s team almost the moment he arrived in ‘The Show’. To watch Walker, to hear him speak, to see him deal with the media and fans… he absolutely and unequivocally, ‘gets it’. He’s a hometown kid that always wanted to grow up to play for the Pirates, and there is no place else he’d rather be.
Unlike some of the other young players on the Pirates, no matter how good he becomes in the future, you just get the feeling that Neil Walker is going to be a Pirate forever. Kinda like you felt with Jack, maybe even moreso. How could they ever get rid of him? Heck, he came up and hit .296 in his first season with the Pirates, knocked 12 home runs and drove in 66 runs. He tied Albert Pujols for 3rd most RBI in the National League after the All Star break. He didn’t even arrive in Pittsburgh until just before Memorial Day, and is playing a position that was one of the few he had’t previously been a regular at. The expectations are that he will be much, much better in 2011. That may be hard to achieve, and may be unfair to him, but it feels like it is almost a given seeing how hard he works and how comfortable he is in his role as
a leader with, no, scratch that… as THE leader of this Pirates team.
Pedro Alvarez may hit 40 bombs this year. Cutch may steal 40 bases, hit .320 and be a National League All Star. Jose Tabata may break out onto the national stage with a huge year. But this is Neil Walker’s team. And there is no better person to have in that role, than someone who leads by example the way that he does. It’s been a long, long time for us Pirates fans since we’ve had a reason to be excited. And history has shown, because of ownership, front office flaws, managerial shortcomings and a lack of talent, that the fans need to SEE something before they truly fall in love with this franchise again.
But I just can’t help but feel like baseball is about to become relevant in Pittsburgh again. And guys like Neil Walker are going to be a part of the solution that helps make that happen. And if they don’t start winning, at least we’ll have a player that we can watch and enjoy, and somehow feel like we can relate to.