The Pittsburgh Pirates enjoyed four good months in the 2011 season. They're hoping they can enjoy the full six this year.
The Pirates are hoping that the spark gleaned from last season's strong first-half showing continues throughout the entire 2012 season, which opens today with a 1:35 p.m. home game against the Philadelphia Phillies at PNC Park.
"We didn't finish the way we wanted last year, but I think we learned some lessons,'' Pirates president Frank Coonelly said during a visit to Altoona with the Pirates Winter Caravan this past December. "We want to play well for six months instead of four this year.''
Clint Hurdle brought his charismatic personality to the Pirates clubhouse last summer and had the club believing in his first year as their manager.
The Pirates, who had staggered through 18 consecutive losing seasons, had a 51-44 record on July 19, and led the National League Central Division by one-half game. They faltered over the final two months, however, winning just 21 of their final 67 games and finishing with a 72-90 record and in fourth place, 24 games behind the division champion Milwaukee Brewers.
Injuries were a problem for the Pirates in 2011. So was inconsistent pitching in the last two months of the season, and a spotty batting attack that saw the Bucs finish 12th among the National League's 16 teams in overall batting average (.243) and 14th in overall runs scored (610).
Pirates' 2012 keys
John Hartsock's capsule look at the biggest factors in whether the Pirates can continue last year's improvement in 2012:
1. Pitching: It's still a big question mark, even though Charlie Morton improved considerably last year and James McDonald showed promise. Can both continue their progress this year? Which Kevin Correia will show up this year - last season's first half all-star or the pitcher who dipped miserably in the second half? Will A.J. Burnett and/or Erik Bedard be assets or busts?
2. Pedro Alvarez: The former top overall draft pick was last season's biggest single disappointment. The Bucs are counting on him for a big turnaround in 2012. A productive Alvarez opens up the entire lineup, and gives the team the middle-of-the-order basher it needs. If he flops again, though, the batting order may continue to be very pedestrian.
3. Building on last year: The Pirates got a taste of success last year, fleeting as it was. Regaining that momentum this season - especially early this season - will be vital.
4. Treading April: The Pirates' April schedule is a bear, with a road trip to Arizona, Dodger Stadium and San Francisco following an opening three-game homestand with the Philadelphia Phillies. After hosting the defending World Champion St. Louis Cardinals for three games, the Bucs wind up the month with four games in Atlanta. It's important that the Pirates at least tread water in an opening month that could shape the remainder of their season.
5. Avoiding slumps: Prolonged losing streaks have proven the Pirates' undoing for the past several seasons. Last year, the Bucs lost 10 in a row from July 29-Aug. 7 and fell out of the Central Division race. They were 8-22 in August. Staying away from the long skid(s) will be essential this year.
Prediction: 80-82, fourth place in the National League Central Division.
Comment: Improvement will continue, but there are still too many question marks to pick this team for the top half of the division.
- John Hartsock
But Hurdle, ever the straight shooter, refused to use injuries as an excuse for the club's second-half struggles when he greeted the media during an offseason visit here.
"In the second half of the season, as the injuries continued, our depth got challenged, but everybody's depth gets challenged [in Major League Baseball],'' he said. "We weren't able to respond offensively throughout the season to give ourselves any kind of a buffer. There wasn't any room for error, or any type of safety net.
"But I think the players got a healthy dose of reality about what it takes to be an upper-tier ballclub, about what it takes to compete, and about what it takes to win,'' Hurdle added. "A lot of lessons were learned.''
The bad news is that the Pirates didn't make drastic offseason improvements with an offense that managed only 107 home runs - 14th in the NL - last season.
The good news is that two of the most formidable power hitters in the NL Central, Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder, left St. Louis and Milwaukee, respectively, in the offseason and are now plying their trades in the American League.
"Albert Pujols really loved playing at PNC Park, and he put some of his best offensive numbers up against us [in his 11 major league seasons to date] there,'' said Pirates' all-star center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who also visited Altoona last December. "It's kinda good to get him out of there. But one person isn't going to change a whole ballclub. The Cardinals have great pitching, and they're still going to be a great team. The Brewers have great pitching, and they're still going to be a great team.''
The Pirates made some moves that they hope will strengthen their staff, rolling the dice on veteran righthander A.J. Burnett, who was a disappointment with the New York Yankees, and injury-prone lefthander Erik Bedard, who won just five games with Seattle last year. Both are veterans who could stabilize a starting rotation, but either or both could also prove to be bad investments whose better days are behind them.
Burnett's tenure with the Pirates started off on an unfortunate note when he suffered a fracture of the orbital bone surrounding his right eye while performing a bunting drill in spring training at Bradenton, Fla. Feb. 29. Burnett underwent surgery March 2 and is not expected to be available for pitching duty until at the earliest, late April.
Righty Charlie Morton (10-10 record, 3.83 earned run average in 2011) had hip surgery last October and will begin the season on the 15-day disabled list. Righthanders Jeff Karstens - a pleasant surprise last year with a 9-9 record and 3.38 earned run average - James McDonald (9-9, 4.21), and Kevin Correia (12-11, 4.79) all return.
Offensively, the Pirates are hoping that a couple of their younger players who struggled with injuries and/or inconsistency last year can make strong comebacks. Most notably, third baseman and former top draft pick Pedro Alvarez, who missed a large chunk of last season with a quadriceps injury and batted just .196 with three homers and 15 RBIs through August.
Having outfielders Jose Tabata and Alex Presley healthy for a full season should also make a positive impact. McCutchen (23 home runs, 89 RBIs - both team-high marks in 2011) and second baseman Neil Walker (team-leading .273 average, 12 homers, 83 RBIs last season) are still the centerpieces of the batting order. The Pirates rewarded McCutchen with a six-year, $51.5 million contract March 6.
The Bucs re-acquired outfielder Nate McLouth, who left Pittsburgh as an all-star in a trade with Atlanta three years ago, and they also picked up third baseman Casey McGehee from the Milwaukee Brewers. Both are veterans who could play valuable support roles or wind up picking up the slack as starters this season.
"There are some pivotal guys coming back who are bringing a lot to this team,'' McCutchen said. "I'm looking forward to playing alongside them.''