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.