The pessimism of many Pittsburgh Pirates fans about the team’s recent struggles on the diamond (losers of 11 of 16 games while falling eight games back of the Reds) is unwarranted. While mid-summer dreams of an NL Central pennant have likely slipped away, the Pirates remain in the thick of the Wild Card race and, more importantly, the future is bright. Here are the top 5 reasons Pirates fans should be optimistic about the future.
1. A Young Core at the Major League Level
It has been a breakout year for quite a few Buccos in 2012. Andrew McCutchen is the most obvious and talked about example. The Pirates talented 25-year-old CF is an MVP candidate and contending for a batting title. Even after he cooled off from his torrid July pace, Cutch is still hitting .349 with a career high 24 HR and 76 RBI.
Neil Walker and Garret Jones have garnered a lot less national press than Cutch, but both have had breakout years. Walker, 26, who plays a solid defensive 2B, is hitting .286 with a career high 14 HR and 68 RBI. Jones is a little older, but still just 31, and having his most productive year since his first year in Pittsburgh (2009). GI Jones has quietly matched a career high with 21 HR, is hitting .287 and has 69 RBI.
For a stretch earlier in the season, 27-year-old James McDonald was arguably the best starting pitcher in the NL. While JMac’s second half numbers have been disappointing, he has still posted a career high 11 wins (with six losses), a solid 3.73 ERA, and has struck out 135 batters while surrendering just 125 hits over 152 IP.
No Pirates player has been more frustrating or more exciting than Pedro Alvarez. Alvarez is an incredibly streaky hitter, who hits HRs in bunches. After a horrendous 2011, which saw El Toro demoted to Triple-A, the 25-year-old 3B has rebounded hitting a career high 23 HR and just shy of his career high in RBI with 63.
2. Young Guns Coming
The crown jewels of the Pirates minor league system are SPs Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. Of the two, Cole is the more heavily-hyped and most likely to see the major leagues first (indeed, some have argued that he should be called up now, a la David Price a few years ago for the Rays). The 6’4”, 220-lb., hard-throwing right-hander is 8-6, 2.86 ERA with 125 K in 119 IP between Class-A Bradenton and Double-A Altoona.
The 6’6” Taillon is just 20 years old, but is already in Double-A Altoona. Taillon is 7-8 with a 3.67 ERA and 1.1.54 WHIP this year between Class-A Bradenton and Altoona. Both Cole and Taillon could be a part of the Pirates' rotation at some point next year.
3. Starling Marte
The Pirates have stocked up on pitching in the minors, but for a team with so many high draft picks, they have very few real prospects among position players. The one exception is 23-year-old Starling Marte. Marte hit .332 at Double-A Altoona last year with 12 HR and 24 SB. Despite a stellar spring training, Marte started 2012 at Triple-A Indy where he hit .286 with 21 2B, 13 3B, 12 HR and 21 SB in just 99 games. Before going on the DL, Marte had put up solid numbers for the big club since being recalled (.253, 2 3B, 4 HR and 4 SB in only 95 AB). An OF with Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen gives the Pirates their best OF combination since the days of Andy Van Slyke and Barry Bonds.
4. Veteran Leadership
A.J. Burnett (15-4, 3.63 ERA, 1.25 WHIP) is arguably having the best year of his long career. Burnett has not only been a beast on the mound, he has also been the unquestioned leader in the Pirates clubhouse. Burnett has taken young pitchers like James McDonald under his wing. Burnett has also given the Pirates a personality. After almost two decades of losing, apathy and irrelevance, Burnett has been a fiery and outspoken leader on and off the field. With so many of the Pirates young players falling under the category of “quiet leaders,” Burnett is a much needed clubhouse bull.
5. Deals at Trading Deadline
Neal Huntington has been roundly thrashed on sports radio, on blogs and on Twitter for the the deals he made—and the deals he didn’t make—at the trading deadline. Outside of the nonsensical Casey McGehee for Chad Qualls trade, the deals Huntington made at the trading deadline all certainly improved the Pirates' prospects for next year. It wasn’t just about the trades Huntington made either, it was also about the trades he didn’t make. Huntington didn’t acquire a single rental player and didn’t give up a single top Pirates prospect.
The Pirates gave up the most for Wandy Rodriguez, but in return they got a durable left-handed starter, under contract (with the Astros eating a lot of his salary), who along with James McDonald and AJ Burnett, give the Pirates a solid 1-2-3 at the top of the rotation. Rodriguez has four consecutive seasons of a sub 4.00 ERA and three consecutive seasons with 190+ IP. If Rodriguez stays healthy and pitches reasonably well over the last month of the season, both of those streaks will be extended.
Former top Blue Jays prospect Travis Snider, who the Pirates for pitcher Brad Lincoln, has tremendous upside. Snider who broke into the league in 2008 is just 24. Snider, who has lit up minor league pitching, has power to all fields and despite a nagging hamstring injury has hit well in limited time with the Pirates (.306, 1 HR, 5 RBI in 62 AB).
Expectations are funny things. In April, most Pirates fans would have ecstatic if you told them the Pirates would be 10 games over .500 and still playing meaningful ball in late August. Pirates fans would do well to remember how far this young team has come from the team that won just 57 games in 2010. Even more importantly, Pirates fans should take comfort knowing the future is bright for the Buccos.