Pressing Questions: The Pittsburgh Pirates

There's no reason to feel sorry for the sports fans of Pittsburgh. The Steelers are getting ready for their eighth Super Bowl appearance (they're 6-1 all-time on Super Sunday). The Penguins are once again on anyone's short list of Stanley Cup contenders. The Pittsburgh Panthers men's basketball team is ranked fourth in the nation. The next championship is never far away in this city.

Alas, today we have to talk about the Pirates. And that's where the air starts to hiss out of the balloon. Once we get past the gem of PNC Park and the skills of Andrew McCutchen(notes) and Pedro Alvarez(notes), there's not much left to smile about.

A generation ago, the Pirates were a juggernaut. The Bonds/Bonilla/Drabek Pirates won the NL East for three consecutive years, from 1990-1992, and twice made it to the seventh game of the NLCS. The last playoff appearance left the biggest scar; Stan Belinda blew a two-run lead in the final inning of Game 7, Chico Lind picked the worst possible time for an error, and Sid Bream somehow eluded Spanky LaValliere's tag to put a wrap on it. Bonds left for San Francisco a few months later and the Pirates haven't been the same since; Pittsburgh hasn't posted a winning record since 1992, and last year's team was the worst of the lot (57-105).

It's going to take several years to turn this organization around; the major-league roster is mediocre and most of the top prospects are young pitchers who are not close to contributing. I like to think we get fantasy-rewarded for mining the small-market clubs, but this team will probably lose 100 or more games again and won't do a lot for our teams in the meantime (the Bucs scored just 587 runs last year, worst in the NL). Only two Pirates are in the Top 250 in early mock returns: McCutchen and Alvarez. There's a reason the Pirates are the 30th and final PQ off the runway.

Who is the closer going to be?

Joel Hanrahan(notes) and Evan Meek(notes) both have the skills for the job, but there's been no declaration yet from GM Neal Huntington or manager Clint Hurdle. "The best answer that I can give you is that we haven't spent a ton of time identifying who it's going to be," Huntington told Jenifer Langosch of a week ago. Huntington admitted that in a perfect situation, the job would go to one man.

Hanrahan fits the traditional closer profile better; he collected a ridiculous 100 strikeouts in 69.2 innings last year, and he also had a better walk rate than Meek. John Russell used Meek as the jams guy for most of 2010, and it won't be a surprise if Hurdle ultimately goes that route as well. If I had to draft one of these guys today, it's Hanrahan.

What happened to the feel-good Garrett Jones(notes) story?

Jones was a blast to own in the second half of 2009, but that's ancient history now. The Bucs have accepted that Jones can't handle left-handed pitching (he's at .210/.249/.381 for his career); Jones will open the year in an outfield platoon with Matt Diaz(notes). Jones gets the heavier side of the time-share, of course, but part-timers aren't really worth owning in a standard mixer.

And make no mistake about Hurdle, he's a man that loves lineup jockeying and platoons. My friend Gene McCaffrey had this timeless observation on Hurdle back in the Colorado days: "He can't wait to get his best lineup off the field." Tells you all you need to know.

Is Mario Mendoza the real Super Mario?

Maybe it's time to reopen this long-forgotten argument. Mendoza managed to hit over .200 four times, and he's got the Mendoza Line as his eternal legacy. Meanwhile, Mario Lemieux never got past the 199-point mark.

In truth, it's amazing the Mendoza card from 1978 didn't torpedo the entire Topps Baseball Card enterprise. Look at all the brutally-wrong elements to this Mendoza photograph. Terrible hair, check. Wispy porn mustache, check. Batting helmet over the hat, check. Glasses of a computer geek, check. Absurd facial expression, check. If this card had been the first one I looked at as a kid, I would have been too scared to go any further.

Is there a possible sleeper on the starting staff?

You can make a case for James McDonald(notes). The former Dodger prospect had a snappy debut with the Bucs down the stretch, compiling 11 respectable starts (3.52 ERA, 1.30 WHIP, 61 strikeouts over 64 innings). Of course the Pirates didn't support him all that well – a 4-5 record was the result from those 11 turns – but if McDonald can sustain that level of production over a full season, he'll be worth occasional streaming at minimum, and maybe a full-time mixer spot.

The rest of the staff is underwhelming. Paul Maholm(notes) has stagnated in his development, Kevin Correia(notes) is the very definition of a journeyman, Ross Ohlendorf(notes) doesn't strike out enough batters, and Charlie Morton(notes) is a gift to every NL hitter.

Can I get one more roster lap before I go back to my Sidney watching and Towel waving?

Alvarez is far from a finished product – he's got a messy contact rate and his glove needs a lot of work – but he's probably going to push 30 homers in his first full season. His stroke works well at home in particular, where he posted a .281/.335/.541 line last year over 50 games (with 12 homers). … Jose Tabata(notes) is one of the better cheap speed options on the 2011 board; he swiped 19 bags in 102 games with the Bucs last year, and was a plus player in average (.299) and runs scored (61). He'll wind up batting first or second to open the year. … Neil Walker's(notes) credible debut seemingly came out of nowhere but he was a first-round pick in 2004; maybe it's just a case of slow development (not to mention a position switch; he was drafted as a catcher). A .296 average and power from the second-base slot (12 homers over 426 at-bats) sounds good to me; consider him as a possible final-round selection. … Ryan Doumit(notes) normally frustrates us with his inability to stay healthy, but this year the lack of a lineup spot blocks him from our rosters. Chris Snyder(notes) is set to catch most of the time, Lyle Overbay(notes) steps in at first base, and the Bucs have plenty of options in the corners of the outfield. Normally you love to land a fake-catcher for your fantasy club – a catcher-eligible player who isn't stuck behind the plate most of the time – but it remains to be seen if Hurdle can find even 400 at-bats for Doumit. I'll let this story play out before I make any sort of investment. … If you want to soak in some Pittsburgh slugging from 1979, allow me to suggest this timeless video. Dig in.


Image courtesy Associated Press

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