March 29, 2011

Your 2011 Pirates Offense

With Opening Day three days away, the Pirates have decided on the 13 hitters who will be in uniform Friday in Chicago. Four of these roster spots were undecided entering spring training, and the fact that these guys won them gives hope to all the Jaramillos, Pearces, Rodriguezes and Bowkers of their lines of business. We've all known truck drivers who couldn't drive a truck and tax accountants who couldn't do taxes. It's heartwarming that we have those guys in baseball. It seems unimportant who goes north in April, but know that this means a lot to those players at the margins in Major League Baseball. Here's the breakdown:

Starting catcher Chris Snyder (.207/.320/.376 in 2009) will start the season on the disabled list with back problems. The Pirates are spinning this as a minor injury - but lingering knee or and back issues are rarely resolved quickly.

The injury opens the door for Ryan Doumit (.251/.331/.406) to make his fourth consecutive Opening Day start. After a summer of unsuccessfully shopping their switch-hitting, defensively challeged catcher, some more regular playing time might be what the Pirates need to boost Doumit's trade value. Doumit has never failed to hit while healthy and he is healthy now. He gets a chance to move on from the disaster of 2009.

By default the backup is Jason Jaramillo (.149/.227/.207). Jaramillo is a reliable defender who simply can't hit enough to warrant a spot in the lineup more than once a week. Let's hope that Clint Hurdle doesn't give him more playing time than he merits.

First Basemen
Your everyday starter is Lyle Overbay (.249/.323/.433). No major league club has any business making Lyle Overbay their main offseason acquisition, but Overbay is a legitimate MLB first baseman which is more than could be said for anyone who manned the position for Pittsburgh last year. He's a solid middle of the order hitter against righthanders. Against southpaws, let's just hope this devolves into a platoon.

Steven Pearce (.276/.395/.414) made the team as a pinch hitter and will back up Overbay. Widely viewed as a disappointment at the MLB level, Pearce has actually torched lefthanded pitching to the tune of a .304/.372/.557 career batting line. He hit .286/.333/.408 this spring which was enough to win a job, given that realistically there weren't many good options. It's a perfect platoon situation - I'd rather not see if Overbay can learn to hit lefthanders at age 34.

Second Basemen
Native son Neil Walker (.296/.349/.462) returns as we all wonder whether he can repeat the success of his rookie year. Walker has gap power but needs to learn plate discipline to be a truly effective hitter year in and year out. Defensively, I think he showed enough tools to be an MLB average second baseman with continued improvement.

The backup here is Josh Rodriguez, a Rule V pick with no MLB experience who had a decent spring hitting .278/.381/.361. Count me happy to have seen Rodriguez get a meaningless hit in a meaningless game this weekend to cement his spot on the roster. A certain Post-Gazette writer has been spinning this as a controversial move, but it's obvious that the Pirates didn't drat Rodriguez first in the Rule V with aims of giving him back. In any event, Rodriguez isn't likely to get enough playing time for it to matter.

Third Basemen
This year's wild card, to me, is Pedro Alvarez (.256/.326/.461). He had a solid debut season, but more lies ahead. Pedro hit only 16 home runs in 95 games in 2010, and had 37 walks to go with 119 strikeouts. He still reminds me of Ryan Howard. It wouldn't shock me if he hits 35 home runs this year. It would shock me if he doesn't hit 25.

Rodriguez is the backup here, and he won't see much time. Even if Alvarez is injured, the Pirates will likely recall Andy Marte to play every day.

Back for another year as a starter is Ronny Cedeno (.256/.293/.382). No one knows how this happened. The less said about it the better. Rodriguez is the backup here too, and he merits more playing time at shortstop. I watched all of three innings of spring training, but it's hard to imagine Rodriguez is worse than Cedeno.

And here we are, the strength of this offense. Andrew McCutchen (.285/.365/.449) led the league last year in Being a Productive Pirate and is poised to break out with a 20/40 year out of the leadoff spot. We are all witnesses. Jose Tabata (.299/.346/.400) has PNC Park's huge left field in capable hands and barring injury will start over 150 games while hopefully translating a little of that doubles power into home runs. And in right we have a platoon of Garrett Jones (.247/.306/.414) and Matt Diaz (.250/.302/.438), two halves of a good player if I ever saw two halves of a productive player.

Winning the coveted 25th man job was John Bowker (.219/.281/.371). Bowker will start a game pretty much never but with any luck will have one of those all-important 100 game, 100 at bat seasons. A good lefthanded pinch hitter is a tremendous asset in the National League. Bowker personifies two of those three all-important adjectives, and who ever said a baseball player should be "good"? He rounds out a versatile and disappointing bench.

March 28, 2011

Pirates Break Camp

Even though it's 38 degrees outside, it is warm and sunny in Pittsburgh today.

Sixty-two men left their offseason homes six weeks ago, traveling from Iowa and Montreal and Washington and Venezuela to a seemingly random Florida city along U.S. 41. While we continued our quotidian obligations of bitching about weather and the economy and referees, these men were busy bunting, taking grounders, breaking in gloves, playing meaningless games in places like Fort Myers or Kissimmee - and most importantly forming a team: the 2011 World Champion Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Grapefruit League results have long since ceased to interest much of anyone. Today's 4-3 loss to the Twins, the winning runs given up by a veteran of 3.2 major league innings, is no different. Spring training is for Anthony Claggetts and Starling Martes and fans who leave early to catch the early bird special at Shoney's. The Pirates closed the book today on that 100-level graduation requirement.

Twenty-five men broke camp today and headed north. This is the group that we will see 81 times this year from the upper deck above first base. This team will play nearly every day as cold April nights yield blazing hot summer days yield cold late September nights. On Friday all the impure sports, games decided by a flop in the lane or a flop at the blue line, careers and brains ruined for the sake of senseless violence, can take their rightful place in the order behind Baseball.

For the first time in six months, all the Pittsburgh Pirates will be in Pennsylvania tonight. There are two more meaningless games in South Philly, a flight to Chicago, then a real day game in Wrigley Friday. It's not a home opener, but it's a day game at the oldest park in the oldest league in baseball. Probable pitchers have been announced. It's on.

March 24, 2011

Pirates At Bat Songs For 2011

With Opening Day a week away, a #1 draft pick coming up, and the trade deadline less than five months away, the Pirates can't afford to blow an important strategic decision. I was torn between suggesting different songs for each player and just suggesting Danzig's "Mother" for everyone...

Andrew McCutchen
Fugazi - Waiting Room

Jose Tabata
The Box Tops - The Letter

Neil Walker
Wiz Khalifa - Black and Yellow

Pedro Alvarez
Blessid Union of Souls - Light In Your Eyes

Lyle Overbay
Led Zeppelin - Immigrant Song

Garrett Jones
Public Enemy - He Got Game

Chris Snyder
DMX - Who We Be

Ronny Cedeno
R.E.M. - Shiny Happy People

Matt Diaz
Third Eye Blind - Semi-Charmed Life

Ryan Doumit
Presidents of the USA - Peaches

John Bowker
Paul Simon - You Can Call Me Al

Steven Pearce
Goo Goo Dolls - Black Balloon

Josh Rodriguez
The Who - Who Are You

Kevin Correia
KISS - Beth

Paul Maholm
Three 6 Mafia - Stay Fly

Ross Ohlendorf
Fleetwood Mac - Landslide

James McDonald
Sublime - April 29, 1992 (Miami)

Charlie Morton
Bob Dylan - Honey, Just Allow Me One More Chance

March 21, 2011

Olsen Disabled, Morton in Rotation

The Pirates announced today that prospective fifth starter Scott Olsen will open the season on the disabled list - opening the door for Charlie Morton to "win" the job.

This decision was a real "Clint's Choice" anyway as these pitchers basically competed with each other to be the most hittable in the league. Batters hit .303/.360/.501 against Olsen and .303/.369/.462 against Morton over the past two seasons. George Brett hit .305/.369/.487 for his career so we are basically facing a lineup of nine George Bretts with either of those guys. Of course, George Brett is usually hammered now so that's what gives us hope for this 2011 WFC season.

Most of the reactions I have seen are positive, along the lines of, Charlie Morton is a great guy and deserves another chance to succeed. Actually I know a lot of guys who are great guys. None of them went 2-12 with a 7.57 ERA last season and none of them are in a major league starting rotation.

I posted on these pages that the Pirates needed to sign two legitimate starting pitchers in the offseason. Knowing we wouldn't get any real free agents, I suggested Kevin Correia and Rich Harden. Instead of Harden who is 55-34 with a 3.63 ERA in his career, because Pirates management knows more than me, we have in our rotation Charlie Morton, 11-29 with a 5.98. On the positive side, some girl I met a few times who seemed pretty nice likes Charlie Morton, is from near his hometown and says he is nice. What a way to do business as one of the 30 clubs in Major League Baseball.

March 14, 2011

Anthony Rendon Update: March 14

Everyone knows that Anthony Rendon will be the Pirates' first overall pick in June. WFC Blog scouts report that he's half Ty Cobb, half Jesse Owens, and half Winston Churchill, and that's a legit #2 pick and defensible at #1.

A third baseman by trade, Rendon has DHed all year because of elbow problems. Since there's not enough pressure put on gifted athletes who are under 21, I'm keeping you updated each day.

March 11: Long Beach State 2, #15 Rice 1
Rice lost another disappointing decision to fall to 9-7. Anthony Rendon was no help as he went 0-for-4 and failed to score or drive in a run. Better luck next time.

March 12: Cal 7, #15 Rice 6
With Rice already up 5-1, Rendon singled in the fifth, stole second, and scored a run. But the Owls ended up losing in 15 innings with Rendon going just 1-for-6 with a walk, three strikeouts, and one run scored.

March 13: #15 Rice 2, UC Santa Barbara 1
With their backs against the wall, Rice finally came through with a win to improve to 10-8. Chase McDowell (2-1) went the distance but received little help from the Pirates' #1 pick. Rendon went 2-for-5 with a double but failed to score or drive in a run.

Weekend Statistics
3 games, 3-16, 1 2B, 2 R, 1 BB, 3 K

Season Statistics
15 games, .358/.500/.627, 19 R, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 17 BB, 10 K

Next Games
Wednesday vs. Dallas Baptist, 6:30 p.m.
Friday vs. Louisiana Tech, 6:30 p.m.
Saturday vs. Louisiana Tech, 2 p.m.
Sunday vs. Louisiana Tech, 1 p.m.

March 13, 2011

My Awful & Infrequent Contributions

Greetings to all of you long suffering Pirates fans. I will be joining B.S. during the championship run for 2011 as a contributing writer for this blog. I come to you as an occasional owner/writer of two other Pirates blogs; Sitting in the North Shore Notch and Ohlie's Orange Army. I must say, it was an honor when B.S. gave me writing privileges for the Pirates WFC blog. This opportunity will provide me a forum for expressing my baseball thoughts, while not having to worry about fulfilling full-time blogger duties.

I must admit I don't know how often I will be on here or what I will be writing about. However, one of the contributions I hope to be able to make to this blog will be the MLB The Show game day predictions. These game predictions were popular features on my previous blog and provided a pretty accurate account of how the first week of the season went.

So with that being said, and not much really being said at all, Let's Go Bucs.

March 11, 2011

2011 Position Preview: Relief Pitchers

Clint Hurdle made his first major move as manager when he named Joel Hanrahan the closer at the beginning of spring training. It's the same move I advocated the day after the Octavio Dotel trade so obviously I support the decision. Hanrahan's two pitch arsenal plays well in a one inning role, while Evan Meek is better suited for a more versatile role including multiple inning appearances. I also applaud Hurdle for making the move when he did; now both pitchers can concentrate on getting ready for the season without worrying about their roles. Position battles should be left to players who aren't core components on the team.

Hanrahan is a prototypical two-pitch closer - and it's a formidable one-two punch. His 96 mph heater is the fastest on the Pittsburgh staff, and his strikeout pitch - a hard-breaking 85 mph slider - is flat out unhittable when he keeps it down. Joel's 2010 season was a huge step forward and certainly merits a closing role.

2008: 84 IP, 6-3, 3.95, 1.36 WHIP, 9.9 K/9
2009: 64 IP, 1-4, 4.78, 1.67 WHIP, 10.1 K/9
2010: 70 IP, 4-1, 3.62, 1.21 WHIP, 12.9 K/9

Hanrahan's career was floundering in Washington, making him a throw-in in the Nyjer Morgan deal. He had a 7.71 ERA at the time of the trade in June 2009, but since then has compiled a 3.03 ERA and 12.2 K/9 in 102 appearances.

Last offseason, Joel added over a full mile per hour to his fastball. I'm not expecting further improvement for his age 29 season, but improvement is not necessary for a man who's already one of the most unhittable relievers in the league. He was a bit unlucky in ERA in 2010 so I'd expect that to come down to around 3.25, with a 1.20 WHIP and 12 K/9 in 70 innings.

Set-Up Man: Evan Meek
Evan added two miles per hour to his fastball last year with All-Star results. While Hanrahan's 96 mph fastball is straight gas, Meek now throws his at 95 mph with devastating movement. Evan also features a 93 mph cutter, an 84 mph slider, and an 81 mph curve. He was always unhittable, but 2010 was the year he finally cut his walk rate to the "effectively wild" range.

2008: 13 IP, 0-1, 6.92, 1.77 WHIP, 4.8 K/9
2009: 47 IP, 1-1, 3.45, 1.34 WHIP, 8.0 K/9
2010: 80 IP, 5-4, 2.14, 1.05 WHIP, 7.9 K/9

2010 was probably a career year, but Evan Meek is a true relief ace with four above average pitches. With his arsenal, he's the type of guy who in the 1970s would have thrown 130 innings out of the bullpen and made a couple of spot starts. I do have a pretty sweet brown, tan, light tan and white shirt, but it doesn't have a big collar which means it's 2011 and we'll have to settle for 75 innings, a 2.90 ERA, a 1.22 WHIP, and 8 K/9.

Middle Reliever: Chris Resop
This is where things get worrisome to some fans. In addition to Meek and Hanrahan, last year's pre-trade deadline Pirates bullpen featured three accomplished and reliable veterans in Octavio Dotel, Javier Lopez and D.J. Carrasco. Apart from his top two guys this year, Clint Hurdle will be forced to rely on a combination of journeymen, unproven minor leaguers, and failed starters.

The best of that bunch is Chris Resop. He's a lock to make the team and has strikeout stuff, so I'm penciling him in as the seventh inning set-up man. He throws a 94 mph fastball three-quarters of the time and also features a 78 mph curveball that he needs to command better. He has a changeup that he may throw once an inning. He had a 2.09 ERA last year as an AAA starter before the Braves brought him up, used him for one poor outing, and then tried to sneak him through waivers. The Pirates pounced with good results.

2008: 18 IP, 0-1, 5.89, 1.42 WHIP, 6.4 K/9
2010: 21 IP, 0-0, 3.86, 1.33 WHIP, 11.1 K/9

His 2010 stats are skewed by the bad game in Atlanta - after the Pirates added him, Resop had a 1.89 ERA. But 19 good innings notwithstanding, Resop will remain a question mark until he can duplicate that success. It's hard to believe he'll hold batters to a .156 average as he did last season. That being said, he certainly deserves a shot. This is a shot in the dark but I'd be happy with 60 innings, a 4.50 ERA, 1.38 WHIP and 8 K/9.

Lefty Specialist: Joe Beimel
Elk County's fourth favorite son pitched at Duquesne, started his career with the Pirates, and now returns as the bullpen's elder statesman. Beimel wasn't that effective from 2001-05, but like many crafty lefthanders, Joe figured things out comparatively late in his career. Since 2006 he has averaged over 70 appearances a year for the past five seasons with a 3.20 ERA.

Last year, Beimel was a true specialist as he held lefthanded hitters to a .221/.275/.379 batting line while righthanders torched him to the tune of .329/.388/.574. He averages well under an inning per appearance, and in six postseason appearances has faced a total of seven batters.

2008: 49 IP, 5-1, 2.02, 1.45 WHIP, 5.9 K/9
2009: 55 IP, 1-6, 3.58, 1.37 WHIP, 5.7 K/9
2010: 45 IP, 1-2, 3.40, 1.36 WHIP, 4.2 K/9

Beimel will be 34, but this type of pitcher doesn't usually regress much at that age. He should also benefit from a return to sea level after a year and a half with the Rockies. If he's the only lefty in Clint Hurdle's bullpen, I wouldn't be surprised to see Joe in 81 games. I'd count on him for 50 innings, a 3.60 ERA, 1.35 WHIP, and 5 K/9.

Long Relievers
I'll cover the battle for the last bullpen spot later, but there are two guys left who are almost certain to make the team.

Recalled after the bullpen was decimated by late July trades, Daniel McCutchen put together a great month of August last year. In ten games including a spot start, he compiled a 1.00 ERA in 18 innings. Then it was back to old ways - an 8.04 ERA in the final month which brought his season mark up to 6.12. McCutchen's 90 mph straight fastball is batting practice, so he needs to make either his split-fingered fastball or slider into an out pitch to be better than an AAA guy. Nevertheless, there aren't many obstacles to his making this staff. He'll start out in a role similar to D.J. Carrasco's a year ago, but I'd be shocked if he keeps his ERA under 5.00. I expect him to throw 40 innings with a 5.80 ERA, 1.60 WHIP and 5 K/9 before ending up back in Indianapolis.

Jeff Karstens threw 123 much-needed innings last year with a 4.92 ERA. He showed excellent control which offset the fact that he allowed batters to hit .300 against him. A slow curveball is the only above average pitch of Karstens' four, but he's been smart enough thus far to at least eat innings without getting lit up. And an innings eater out of the bullpen is a near necessity in the likely event that Charlie Morton is in the starting rotation. Unlike McCutchen, I think Karstens will stick the whole year and end up with some starts too. I'd expect 110 innings with a 5.00 ERA, 1.44 WHIP and 5.5 K/9.

March 10, 2011

Anthony Rendon Update: March 10

Nobody with the Pirates wants to say it, but obviously Anthony Rendon will be the first overall pick in June. My latest scouting reports say that he's half Honus Wagner, half Bobby Orr, and half Mohandas Gandhi, and that's not a bad draft pick.

Rendon is a third baseman but he's mostly DHed this year due to injury. In order to further the goal of fueling hype and putting unnecessary pressure on young people, here's today's update on his season.

March 8: Sam Houston State 7, Rice 0
Starting again at DH, Rendon walked in the first and was stranded. He struck out twice and flied out once the rest of the way for an 0-for-3 day. It was a bad day for the powerhouse Rice team too. Playing as an unranked team for the first time, they never were in this game and fell to 8-6 on the seaosn.

March 9: Rice 10, Florida International 2
Apparently football is not the only FIU Golden Panthers program which exists only to lose non-conference games over 1,000 miles from home. Couldn't this be a two game series once we've flown from Miami to Houston? Anyway, with the Owls already leading 4-0, Rendon cracked a bases loaded triple. He scored on the play but was not credited with an inside the park home run as the scorer charged FIU shortstop Garrett Wittels with an error instead. Rendon finished 1-for-3 with two walks, two runs scored and three RBI.

Week's Statistics
2 games, 1-6, 1 3B, 2 R, 3 RBI, 3 BB, 2 K

Season Statistics
15 games, .404/.557/.731, 17 R, 3 HR, 12 RBI, 16 BB, 7 K

Next Games
Cal Tournament at AT&T Park San Francisco
Friday, vs. Long Beach State, 2 p.m. EST
Saturday, vs. Cal, 10 p.m. EST
Sunday, vs. UC Santa Barbara, 3:30 p.m. EST

March 8, 2011

The Penguins Effect

I had lived in four different states and visited Pittsburgh five or six times before moving here, so I figured not much would surprise me. As it turns out, I was unprepared for only one aspect of life in the Steel City.

You see, in most cities, sitting alone at home watching a hockey game is kind of - I don't know - something you do when you have nothing to do that night. It's certainly not a bad night, we appreciate the work our forefathers did to make it possible, but it's not something you fucking plan around.

Well, Pittsburgh has proven all those cities wrong. If watching a preseason game against the Islanders is worthy of turning down a date with a model, then clearly a regular season game against the Capitals beats guaranteed sex with a supermodel. And of course, seeing a first round playoff game on the Vs. network trumps a three-way with a model and a supermodel. Needless to say, it is hard to give away Pirates tickets when any of this stuff is going on.

I decided to quantify this effect by comparing Pirates attendance for the last three years when there is and isn't a Penguins game on TV. And here are your results:There you have it. When the Penguins are playing, the Pirates drew around 2,400 fewer fans a game in 2008 and 2009 and more than 7,000 fewer in 2010. And those numbers are based on tickets sold. Actual attendance takes even more of a hit. People are simply much less likely to use their Pirates tickets when it's possible to see the Mike Rupp line kill 40 seconds of game time.

All this adds up to yet another positive for the 2011 Pirates. The Penguins have riveting games against the Islanders and Thrashers during the Pirates' opening series, but even a drunk guy at Jack's wearing a Malkin Winter Classic jersey - vintage 2008! - is predicting a first round exit for our hockey club. And that should lead to a great atmosphere at PNC Park in this, our 2011 World Championship baseball season.

March 7, 2011

Anthony Rendon Update: March 7

The Pirates are drafting Anthony Rendon first overall in June, and they really earned it. Personally I have almost never felt as tired as I did after the 20-0 loss on April 22. And there were 147 more games to go.

I'm not big on scouting reports, but Rendon is half Mike Schmidt, half Jim Thorpe, and half John Lennon, and that's a pretty good draft pick. Because the main purpose of the Internet is fueling hype and putting unnecessary pressure on young people, I decided to start posting updates on Rendon's season every time Pittsburgh's Savior plays.

March 4: #15 Rice 8, Kentucky 7
In the first game of a tournament at Houston's Minute Maid Park, Rendon went 3-for-5 with a double, two runs scored and an RBI. He started at designated hitter but moved to first base for the final two innings where he flawlessly handled two chances. It was Rendon's first action in the field; he had been the DH so far this season because of a shoulder injury.

March 5: #15 Rice 1, #9 Texas A&M 0
Nothing doing here, as Rendon was the DH, went 0-for-2, and failed to score or drive in a run. Texas righthander Michael Wacha hit Rendon with a pitch in his first two times at bat.

March 6: Baylor 12, #15 Rice 8
Rendon started at DH again in the final game of the weekend. He went 2-for-4 with a strikeout, a double, and most importantly his third home run of the year. He could have done more damage but was intentionally walked twice. Rendon moved to first base for the tenth inning, flawlessly handling one chance, but the Owls lost on a walk-off grand slam.

Weekend Statistics
3 games, 5-11, 2 2B, HR, 3 R, 2 RBI, 2 BB, K

Season Statistics
13 games, .435/.574/.761, 15 R, 3 HR, 9 RBI, 13 BB, 5 K

Next Games
Tuesday, home vs. Sam Houston State
Wednesday, home vs. Florida International

March 6, 2011

2011 Position Preview: Starting Pitchers

The Pirates made one of the two moves I wanted to bolster their starting staff this season when they signed Kevin Correia to a two year, $8 million contract. Correia would be a back end starter almost anywhere else, but based on the spring rotation I expect him to take the Wrigley Field mound on Opening Day, April 1.

Correia is a righthander whose best pitches are a 90 mph fastball with movement and an 85 mph slider. He also mixes in a cutter, a slow curveball and a changeup. After a few inconsistent years in a swingman role, Correia had a breakout season in 2009. Last year he was hurt by the home run and posted the highest ERA of all the Padres' starters.

2008: 110 IP, 3-8, 6.05, 1.71 WHIP, 5.4 K/9
2009: 198 IP, 12-11, 3.91, 1.30 WHIP, 6.5 K/9
2010: 145 IP, 10-10, 5.40, 1.49 WHIP, 7.1 K/9

While his ERA looked bad last year, I'm not too concerned for a few reasons. Correia exceeded his career high in innings by 53 in 2009 while throwing 30% sliders. A huge jump in innings with a high percentage of sliders almost always leads to fatigue the following year. Sure enough, last year Correia had respectable stats (10-7, 4.63) in mid-August before apparently hitting a wall. One year later and at only 30 years old, Correia's arm should be more rested - especially since he threw only 15% sliders last year.

Correia's peripherals are encouraging too. In 2010, he posted his highest ever strikeout rate and also his highest ever ground ball rate, 49%. That ground ball rate makes his home run rate of 1.24 per nine innings look like bad luck. He'll also do better this year if he relies more on the slider, his best pitch. This year I'm expecting Correia to bounce back with a 4.00 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 7 K/9 over 190 innings.

#2 Starter: Paul Maholm
The Pirates' second longest tenured player, Maholm will hope to rebound from a very disappointing year. He had a 4.03 ERA after shutting out the Astros on three hits in July, then was rocked for a 6.81 ERA the rest of the season. I think he'll be the #2 starter this year, which slots him to pitch the home opener on Thursday, April 7.

2008: 206 IP, 9-9, 3.71, 1.28 WHIP, 6.1 K/9
2009: 195 IP, 8-9, 4.44, 1.44 WHIP, 5.5 K/9
2010: 185 IP, 9-15, 5.10, 1.57 WHIP, 5 K/9

I want to see Maholm succeed as much as anyone, but his falling strikeout numbers are cause for concern. While the lefthander did well with his slider and curveball, his 88 mph fastball looked like batting practice to MLB hitters in 2010. Batters hit .303/.360/.452 against Maholm on the year. Even if he can keep home run totals low, the odds of Maholm putting up a sub-4.00 ERA as he did in 2008 look slim to me. In 2011 I'm expecting a 4.90 ERA, 1.50 WHIP and 5 K/9 over 190 innings.

#3 Starter: James McDonald
After coming to Pittsburgh in the Octavio Dotel deal, McDonald was nothing short of a revelation. He relied mainly on a 92 mph fastball which was easily the best on the starting staff, but his out pitch was a 77 mph curveball that routinely made accomplished hitters look stupid. McDonald had a 3.52 ERA for the Pirates - 2.31 in September - and accomplished the rare feat of increasing his strikeout rate despite moving from the bullpen to starting.

2008: 6 IP, 0-0, 0.00, 1.00 WHIP, 3 K/9
2009: 63 IP, 5-5, 4.00, 1.38 WHIP, 7.7 K/9
2010: 72 IP, 4-6, 4.02, 1.30 WHIP, 8.5 K/9

This season, I'm expecting McDonald to again be the Pirates' best pitcher. He's 26 and unlike most pitchers coming off breakout years, should continue to be durable since he doesn't use a slider and has never thrown more than 142 innings in a season. I'm counting on 175 innings with a 3.60 ERA, 1.20 WHIP and 8.3 K/9.

#4 Starter: Ross Ohlendorf
My associate McMillen got together a group of people last year to wear orange in the bleachers for Ohlendorf's starts in honor of his alma mater, Princeton. At the first game the group was me with an orange shirt in section 135, McMillen with an orange shirt in 138, and zero other people who even happened to be wearing orange. It was a real microcosm of Ross's season, which was undoubtedly the best ever for a starter with just one win.

2008: 63 IP, 1-4, 6.46, 1.87 WHIP, 7 K/9
2009: 177 IP, 11-10, 3.92, 1.23 WHIP, 6 K/9
2010: 108 IP, 1-11, 4.07, 1.39 WHIP, 6.6 K/9

Despite the one win season, Ohlendorf pitched well enough that he's now an established major league starter rather than a one year wonder. At 28, he shouldn't lose anything from his 91 mph fastball and can continue to improve his excellent slider. I expect Ross Ohlendorf to be effective again and healthy this year: a 3.90 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 6.5 K/9 in 175 innings.

There are several candidates for the fifth starter spot, so I'll save those for another day. I have confidence in three of Pittsburgh's top four starters, but we'll need Paul Maholm to return to form if the Pirates are to have a good rotation this season.

March 5, 2011

The 25th Man

One of the least interesting battles during any spring training is for the final position player spot on the roster. This is a guy who will barely play and usually will be optioned out by May. As a reliable source of uninteresting Pirates-related news, I figured I would cover this battle.I consider 12 position players locks to make the roster: catchers Ryan Doumit and Chris Snyder; infielders Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Atkins, Ronny Cedeno, Lyle Overbay, Josh Rodriguez, and Neil Walker; and outfielders Matt Diaz, Garrett Jones, Andrew McCutchen and Jose Tabata. With the starting pitching situation what it is, the Pirates certainly will carry seven relievers. So there's one position player spot left on the roster.

The coaches are saying Rodriguez still has to make the team, but rest assured the Pirates aren't shipping their #1 Rule V pick back to Cleveland at the end of spring training. Atkins likewise is supposedly in competition for a spot, but he's a Clint Hurdle guy from their years in Colorado and I'd be shocked if he doesn't go north with the MLB team.

It's too early to evaluate spring training stats, and they're largely meaningless even over the full month. But for better or for worse, decisions like this are made based on spring performance. Here are the candidates to watch for that 25th man spot:

OF John Bowker is probably the most likely player to get this spot simply because he's out of options. He hit .232/.312/.391 in 77 plate appearances after coming over from the Giants last year - not good by any means, but better than most of the guys on this list could muster. Bowker also would provide a lefthanded bat off the bench - the only one on days when both Doumit and Jones are in the starting lineup. I'm not saying Bowker is the best choice, but teams will usually take the player who is out of options if the roster spot is even in question. I don't see the Pirates waiving Bowker so soon after trading for him.

1B Steven Pearce is another front runner. He'll be 28 this year so there's no need for more seasoning. He also hit well last year, .276/.395/.414, albeit in only 38 plate appearances. Personally I would be fine with Pearce on the team as a platoon partner for Overbay. However, I see no use for Pearce when Overbay is the everyday starter and Atkins, Jones and Diaz are all also able to play first base.

3B Josh Fields isn't a great defender, but has absolutely murdered lefthanded pitchers in his career with a .293/.357/.600 slash line. He would be a great weapon off the bench, particularly since having lefthanders Jones, Alvarez, and Overbay in the middle of the lineup is sure to summon lefthanders out of opposing bullpens. However, Fields is here on a minor league deal and can be easily stashed at Indianapolis.

C Jason Jaramillo would be my choice. He didn't hit at all (.149/.227/.207) last year, but with backups already covered at every position I think Jaramillo gives the greatest roster flexibility. With another catcher on board, Clint Hurdle can use his best pinch hitter, Ryan Doumit, in any situation without worrying about a possible catcher injury. Chris Snyder is also the only player in the everyday lineup who would require a pinch runner in the late innings, so it helps to have a good defensive catcher to come off the bench in that likely event. Jaramillo can also come in for Ryan Doumit as a defensive substitute when Snyder has the day off.

3B Andy Marte fields well at third base and hits well enough against lefties (.253/.328/.380) to give Pedro Alvarez an occasional rest. He could be a defensive replacement for Alvarez in the late innings as well. However, I think the Pirates will let Alvarez sink or swim in all situations. Marte is here on a minor league deal for a reason.

SS Pedro Ciriaco is a great fielder and had a single, double and a triple in six at bats last fall. I think he would be the first choice to play every day if Neil Walker or Ronny Cedeno (O hope of hopes) go down with injuries. However, he has options left, could use some more minor leage at bats, and probably is redundant with Rodriguez already on the roster.

March 4, 2011

2011 Position Preview: Shortstop

Some idiot* decided in 2006 that Ronny Cedeno was a Starting Shortstop, and I guess there's no way to shed that label. He's your starter once again in 2011. Cedeno will lose playing time at some point due to some combination of being a poor contact hitter, being a poor power hitter, having poor plate discipline, and fielding poorly. Nonetheless, he'll still start somewhere around the 132 games he started in 2010.

*This is a literary technique. I act like based on the decision this was an non-specific idiot. Wrong. It's a specific idiot and it's Dusty Baker.

The best source for Ronny Cedeno jokes is @cryingbaseball's excellent Twitter feed. The second best source is watching Ronny Cedeno play.

2008: 99 games, .269/.328/.352, 36 Runs, 2 HR, 28 RBI, 4 SB
2009: 105 games, .208/.256/.337, 32 Runs, 10 HR, 38 RBI, 5 SB
2010: 139 games, .256/.293/.382, 42 Runs, 8 HR, 38 RBI, 12 SB

Interestingly enough, 2010 was Cedeno's best year yet. There's nothing more to say about him. He's 28 so he'll probably perform at the same level again. So my prediction is .256/.293/.382, 42 runs, 8 homers, 38 RBI and 12 steals.

Backup: Josh Rodriguez
I guess every Rodriguez gets a "Rod" nickname now, so I can report that "J-Rod" is certainly making this team. The Pirates didn't waste their first pick in the Rule V draft on him for no reason, and they have to offer him back to Cleveland if he doesn't make the team.

Rodriguez is capable of playing second base, third base, and shortstop, and has never played in the major leagues. However, he had a great season at the plate in the minors last year hitting .317/.405/.476 at Akron and then .293/.372/.486 at Columbus. Those are better 2010 minor league numbers than say, Brandon Moss, who hit well enough that everyone was clamoring for him to play in Pittsburgh in a corner outfield spot.

Rodriguez will be 26 this year, has had success hitting in the minors, and is a solid fielder at all three infield positions. The bar to be an MLB backup middle infielder is not high, and he clears it easily. He also could see action as a pinch runner for Chris Snyder. I expect him to get around 150 at bats and hit a respectable .250/.320/.370, a.k.a. better than Ronny Cedeno, with 15 runs and RBI, three home runs and five or six steals.

March 3, 2011

2011 Position Preview: Catcher

Although he didn't hit at all after joining the Pirates last season, Chris Snyder either showed enough on defense to keep the job, or there was just no one else to take the job. Either way, Snyder returns this year with a chance at a full season as the starter.

He may not be interesting, but I think Snyder is one of the most important hitters in the lineup. It's important for a National League lineup to go seven deep, and I'm not expecting anything from Ronny Cedeno. If Snyder can match the numbers he put up in his better seasons, he'll be a major benefit to the offense.

2008: 115 games, .237/.348/.452, 47 Runs, 16 HR, 64 RBI
2009: 61 games, .200/.333/.352, 20 Runs, 6 HR, 22 RBI
2010: 105 games, .207/.320/.376, 34 Runs, 15 HR, 48 RBI

After compiling numbers of .251/.346/.438 from 2006-08, great for a catcher, Snyder's offense has completely fallen off for the past two seasons. He's set to earn $5.75 million and is only 30, so the Pirates have little choice but to play him and hope he regains his earlier form at the plate. Snyder's defense has always been major league average, which was a revelation in Pittsburgh.

The silver lining offensively is Snyder's walk rate. He's walked in between 14 and 16 percent of his plate appearances since 2008, which is huge for a player who hits for a low average. Snyder is a reliable 15 home run hitter with regular playing time, so he won't hurt the offense much if he continues to be selective at the plate. I'm counting on 400 at bats and a line of .220/.340/.380 with 40 runs, 15 homers, 55 RBI, and an eighth consecutive year of zero steals.

Backup: Ryan Doumit
The Opening Day catcher for the past three years, Ryan Doumit enters 2011 as a backup who is also on the trading block. Despite Doumit's above average offense for his position, the Pirates have yet to find a taker for his $5.1 million contract. So Doumit will open 2011 as the Pirates' backup catcher and top pinch hitter.

2008: 116 games, .318/.357/.501, 71 Runs, 15 HR, 69 RBI, 2 SB
2009: 75 games, .250/.299/.414, 31 Runs, 10 HR, 38 RBI, 4 SB
2010: 124 games, .251/.331/.406, 42 runs, 13 HR, 45 RBI, 1 SB

A lot has been made of the idea that Doumit should be a designated hitter, but he's really not a good enough hitter to do that. He's a good enough hitter to be the best hitting backup catcher in baseball. He's also a defensive liability, but what backup catcher is perfect? I'm fine with keeping him for 2011 if no team wants his contract.

Doumit should get only about 250 at bats in his initial role, catching twice a week and pinch hitting. However, as it did late in 2010, his playing time could increase into a 50/50 timeshare if Snyder doesn't hit. In either event, I think he'll benefit at the plate by not catching every day. I expect Doumit to hit .260/.330/.440 with 30 runs, 10 homers, 40 RBI and three steals.

March 2, 2011

2011 Position Preview: Right Field

Garrett Jones returns this year and with the first base experiment apparently over, should see most of his playing time in right field. He won't technically be an everyday player to start the seaosn, but he'll start against all righthanded pitchers which will give him at least 110 starts if he stays healthy.

Jones was a revelation in 2009, then trailed off after a strong start last year to finish with pretty mediocre numbers. He had some bad luck in 2010 and wasn't really used in the right manner, so his true talent lies somewhere in the middle.

2009: 82 games, .293/.372/.567, 45 Runs, 21 HR, 44 RBI, 10 SB
2010: 158 games, .247/.306/.414, 64 runs, 21 HR, 86 RBI, 7 SB

Garrett's unimpressive numbers last year are a result of 230 plate appearances against lefthanded pitching in which he hit .220/.261/.360. No one has questioned his ability to hit righthanders, so I expect his rate stats to rebound considerably. He also hit much better as a right fielder last year than while he was also struggling to learn first base at the big league level.

2009 unquestionably was a career year, but I'm expecting Jones to rebound somewhat in 2011. In around 400 at bats I expect him to hit .270/.340/.460 with 50 runs, 15 home runs, 65 RBI and nine steals.

Platoon Partner: Matt Diaz
The Pirates brought in Matt Diaz on a two year, $4.25 million deal. He'll start in right field against lefthanders. He'll also be the primary backup to Jose Tabata and Andrew McCutchen - Diaz won't play center field but Tabata will shift over when McCutchen gets a rare day off. Diaz has been inconsistent in recent years but certainly has the ability to be an effective platoon player.

2008: 43 games, .244/.264/.304, 9 Runs, 2 HR, 14 RBI, 4 SB
2009: 125 games, .313/.390/.488, 56 Runs, 13 HR, 58 RBI, 12 SB
2010: 84 games, .250/.302/.438, 27 Runs, 7 HR, 31 RBI, 3 SB

Diaz lost 2008 to a knee injury, then had problems with his right thumb in 2009 and 2010. He still compiled a career year in '09 and then hit .285/.335/.530 for the rest of the season after returning from the thumb injury in June 2010. If he can stay healthy for the Pirates, he's a great bat to have on the roster. For his career he's hit an unreal .335/.373/.533 against lefthanders.

Diaz will get over 300 at bats if healthy, but I'm going to be more realistic and count on 250. I expect him to hit around .280/.330/.490 with 30 runs, 9 homers, 36 RBI and four steals.

March 1, 2011

2011 Position Preview: First Base

Here you have it, the big free agent acquisition to upgrade the Pirates lineup: Lyle Overbay. Signed for one year and $5 million, Overbay if nothing else is a legitimate major league first baseman. He's not a star, but this is a far cry from running Jeff Clement out there on Opening Day.

Of course, Overbay should be a platoon first baseman. He was Toronto's regular first baseman last year, when he proved once again that he can't hit lefthanded pitching (.222/.295/.405 in 2010, .259/.308/.402 career). The Pirates nevertheless seem determined to start him every day, probably because they need his above average defense to compensate for their infielders' wild arms. He'll do a solid job overall.

2008: 158 games, .270/.358/.419, 74 Runs, 15 HR, 69 RBI, 1 SB
2009: 132 games, .265/.372/.466, 57 Runs, 16 HR, 64 RBI
2010: 154 games, .243/.329/.433, 75 Runs, 20 HR, 67 RBI, 1 SB

Overbay was in a strict platoon in 2009, so as you see, that year his overall hitting numbers were a lot better. I would like to see Steven Pearce or Garrett Atkins in a platoon here and I expect Overbay to lose playing time at some point. However, Overbay is pretty established and shouldn't really hit differently than he hit in Toronto. Figure on .255/.340/.430 with 55 runs, 17 homers, and 70 RBI.

Backup: Garrett Atkins
Atkins is battling Steven Pearce for this roster spot. I expect Atkins to win it since he was a four year starter for Clint Hurdle in Colorado. Unlike Pearce, Atkins also can play third base, although Atkins should get most of his playing time at first with Pedro Alvarez entrenched across the diamond.

2008: 155 games, .286/.328/.452, 86 Runs, 21 HR, 99 RBI, 1 SB
2009: 128 games, .226/.308/.342, 37 Runs, 9 HR, 48 RBI
2010: 44 games, .214/.276/.286, 5 Rubs, 1 HR, 9 RBI

An elite third baseman in 2006 and '07, Atkins' performance has been in free fall ever since. The Orioles released him in early July last year, opting to eat half of his $4 million contract, and Atkins couldn't catch on with another team.

Despite these struggles, Atkins is only 31 and is reunited with his former manager/hitting instructor. Under Hurdle, Atkins drove in 419 runs from 2005-08. I think he'll be a decent bench bat who ends the season as a platoon partner for Overbay. Figure on .250/.320/.420 in around 150 at bats.