I'll admit it: I've always had a bit of a soft spot for the Pirates. Growing up, I was more drawn to football than baseball, and in Arizona that meant supporting the hapless Cardinals, who were perpetually mismanaged and underfunded in the 90s and early 00s. This is a baseball blog, so I won't bore you with the grim details, except to say that the team had all of one winning season between 1991 and 2008, which comprised my formative sports-watching years.
So I'll always have a place in my heart for hopeless losers, and the Pirates certainly fit the bill. The Pirates haven't finished with a winning record in a season since 1992, a streak of 18 seasons and counting. However, there are reasons to believe that things might finally, finally be turning around in Pittsburgh. Former GM Dave Littleton, who handled the Pirates with the same level of adeptness and foresight as your average ferret might, was replaced by Neil Huntington in 2008. Huntington has since began building the team from the ground up, trading away several high-profile players for prospects and eschewing splashy free-agent signings for under-the-radar pickups. After bottoming out in last year's 57-105 debacle, there really is nowhere left to go but up in Pittsburgh.
The Pirates head into this series with a record of 28-30. That's pretty good, in a "We haven't won 80 games since the first George Bush was president" sort of way. Everyone in Pittsburgh knew that this year would be a rebuilding year, and it still will be, but the team is better than people were expecting, and has a chance to really shine in a couple years. They have some good young talent in the majors already, particularly among position players, with more on the way in the next few years.
What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs)
Arizona (33-27) Pittsburgh (28-30) Edge
The Pirates have struggled offensively this season, as they've rank 24th in Runs Scored so far with just 227, which averages out to just 3.91 runs per game. Given how little payroll they've spent on the lineup this season, I can't imagine that this is a huge shock to Pirate fans.
What is a surprise is how well their pitching has been so far. Charlie Morton, who looks a bit like Roy Halladay if you squint a bit and cock your head at just the right angle, leads the charge for a pitching staff that has a collective ERA of 3.56. Compare this to last year's mark of 5.00, and you'll have a pretty good idea of why the Pirates are only two games under .500 in 2011 after last year's disaster.
Jose Tabata, LF
Josh Harrison, 3B
Andrew McCutchen, CF
Neil Walker, 2B
Lyle Overbay, 1B
Garrett Jones, RF
Chris Snyder, C
Ronny Cedeno, SS
The Pirates' lineup is not terribly flashy, but there's some young talent there. Any discussion of young talent in the Pirates' organization begins with Andrew McCutchen, who's 23, in his third season in the majors, and has a career OPS+ of 123. He's still growing too, as he's on his way to his best season yet with an OPS+ of 132 and 2.8 bWAR already. I'm told he walks on water if you ask him super nicely too.
Pedro Alvarez was drafted in 2008 to give Pittsburgh a drool-worthy core, but he's struggled so far this year and is currently on his way back from an injury. Josh Harrison replaces him, but his OPS of .524 suggests that the team misses Alvarez. Neil Walker is another piece of the puzzle, and he has seemingly cemented second base for years to come by producing an OPS+ of 113 at the age of 25. Jose Tabata hasn't been great so far, with an OPS of .692, but he's only 22 and should improve substantially.
The rest of the lineup is somewhat less inspiring. Garrett Jones has been one of the Pirates' very few pleasant surprises over the past few years, as he burst onto the scene from out of nowhere by producing an OPS of .938 in 2009. He's still hanging around at age 30, as he more than makes up for his Batting Average of .227 with patience and power. Ronny Cedeno has been around for seven seasons and over 2000 Plate Appearances, and he's produced exactly 0.1 fWAR in his career. Which is almost impressive, when you think about it. Lyle Overbay and Chris Snyder should both sound familiar, as they're both former D-Backs. Specifically, both players survived the dreadful 2004 season, which was likely a valuable lesson for playing for the Pirates.
Tuesday: Daniel Hudson (6-5, 4.22) vs. Kevin Correia (8-4, 3.40)
Insightful Commentary: Listen, Daniel Hudson is a good pitcher, I know this and you know this. Giving up 9 runs in his past two starts doesn't change that fact, especially since his most recent outing came against a good hitting lineup (Florida's) in a run-heavy environment (Chase Field). But with that in mind, it would be really nice if his results would start matching his peripherals. Hudson's had a excellent season controlling the things that he can control as a pitcher, but it would lend me (and him, presumably) some peace of mind if his results began to reflect that.
Kevin Correia's stat line above might just be the most surprising statistic I've seen this year. Correia, a 30 year old innings-eating journeyman, has a 3.40 ERA that he's parlayed into 8 wins with the offensively-challenged Pirates. His peripherals have gone crazy too, with his BB/9 almost being cut in half from 2010 to 2011, from 3.97 to 2.00. As if to make up for it, his K/9 has also dropped by over three runs, from 7.14 to 3.99. He hasn't suffered any change in velocity, so I have no idea what to make of any of this. He's still likely to regress though, as his BABIP of .265 is probably unsustainable.
Wednesday: Zach Duke (1-1, 3.00) vs. Paul Maholm (2-7, 3.66)
Insightful Commentary: Back in 2006, Duke and Maholm were the centerpieces of the Pirates' rotation: young, cost-controlled pitchers who would become front-line starters and lead the team to the promised land. Needless to say, this didn't really work out. Maholm's become a good, if not spectacular, pitcher though, and he is having his best season to date at age 28. His ERA of 3.66 and his FIP of 3.58 would both be career highs if they continue. He's probably somewhat curious where Kevin Correia stores his WINZ though...
When he played for Pittsburgh, the prevailing opinion about Duke was that he was victimized by terrible defense behind him. This is what I thought as well, until I saw Duke's last start against the Nationals, where he gave up 10 hits on 19 balls put in play. It's not the defense's fault: Zach Duke just pissed off the God of Batted Balls at some point in a former life, and now he's paying his penance. He really has no one to blame but himself.
Thursday: Josh Collmenter (4-1, 1.25) vs. Jeff Karstens (3-4, 3.30)
Insightful Commentary: Collmenter had his best start of the season last time out, going seven scoreless innings against the Nationals. The rational baseball fan in me sees plenty of reasons he can't succeed as a starter in the majors, most of which have been documented in this space before. But the fact is, Collmenter has thrown 42.1 innings in the majors with an ERA of 1.25 and, just as importantly, an FIP below 3.40. He's about two or three solid starts away from making me eat my words about him, and I really hope he does.
Speaking of improbable success, Jeff Karstens was a throw-in from the Yankees back in 2008 who managed to no-hit the D-Backs for 7.2 innings in his second start for the Pirates. Since then, he has just as improbably morphed into a solid back-of-the-rotation starter for Pittsburgh. His 3.30 ERA is likely unsustainable, as his FIP is 4.42 this year, but he remains one of the few Pirate arms who hasn't gone south the minute the team acquired him.
Final Verdict: The Pirates aren't a slouch this year. They have solid pitching and enough young hitting to give the D-Backs problems if their pitchers aren't careful. I predict Hudson finds his form and out duels Correia, Maholm outshines Duke in the latter's return to Pittsburgh, but Collmenter stays hot to take the rubber game for the D-Backs. Diamondbacks two games to one.
Head over to Bucs Dugout for the Pirate take on the matter.