The date was July 20, 2011 and the Pittsburgh Pirates were alone in first place in the N.L. Central, having just shut out the Cincinnati Reds in consecutive games. This actually happened. Easily verifiable. The season was well beyond its halfway point and Pittsburgh sat atop a division that would eventually produce two playoff teams, including the Series champ.
But then the year took a familiar turn. The Pirates dropped three straight games, and 19 of their next 24. On the morning of August 20, 2011, just one month after leading the Central, Pittsburgh found itself in fourth place, 14.5 games back. Buried. Doomed. The team would ultimately finish with 90 losses. The Bucs have not experienced a winning campaign since 1992, when Barry Bonds Version 1.0 was at his peak.
We can't promise you a Pirates playoff berth in 2012, but there are clearly a few reasons to be interested in this team. Pittsburgh center fielder Andrew McCutchen is just 25 years old and coming off a 23-homer, 23-steal season. Second baseman Neil Walker followed an impressive rookie year with a nice sophomore effort, scoring 76 runs, driving in 83, homering 12 times and stealing nine bags. Joel Hanrahan saved 40 games in 2011 while delivering a 1.83 ERA and allowing just one home run over 68.2 innings. The Bucs' farm system features a handful of notable names, too, including a pair of pitchers who rank among the game's best prospects.
Ignore this franchise at your own peril, fantasy owner. There's some talent in Pittsburgh, and more on the way.
So where do we need to take McCutchen if we want him this year?
In recent mocks, he's the No. 7 outfielder and No. 24 player overall off the board. McCutchen just went 20/20 in his age-24 season, he reaches base at a .365 clip, and he's a clear candidate to make another jump in value. In his best years, this could be a 100-30-100-30 player. But even if he simply repeats his 2011 performance in the year ahead, you'll feel OK about drafting him at his current ADP. McCutchen finished as a top-50 fantasy asset last season, despite a total collapse in September (.171/.316/.355). You're catching him at the right point in the career arc.
And how 'bout the rest of this outfield? Is Alex Presley for real?
Presley was a gift from the free agent pool last year, a guy who homered the day he was called up, then stole a base in game No. 2. He finished his year with four home runs, nine stolen bases and a .298 average over 215 big league at-bats. Combine those numbers with his Triple-A stats — eight homers, 22 steals, .333/.388/.485 — and you really have an excellent pro season. No complaints. Presley is 26 years old and might very well have reached his peak, but he's a person of interest in deeper formats. (In public-style mixed leagues, you're generally looking for outfielders with higher statistical ceilings. Outfield is where you'll find the elite power/speed combo players, or guys who can dominate in specific categories). Presley could of course still play his way out of a starting job if he's a spring disappointment. Nate McLouth lurks, and Garrett Jones can slide to the outfield as needed.
Jose Tabata is coming off an injury-plagued campaign (hand, hamstring, quad), so the priority for 2012 is simply to remain in the lineup. He's entering his age-23 season and projects as a reliable source for steals. If all goes well, consider him a threat for 30-plus. There's growth potential here, so let's not assume the book on Tabata is completely written. Here's a hopeful blurb, via MLB.com's Jenifer Langosch:
"I felt like I got better," Tabata said of his sophomore season. "But I want to keep getting more consistent."
Consistency is a fair goal, though the Pirates are also hopeful that Tabata will continue to develop more power. Manager Clint Hurdle has said, too, that he intends to push Tabata to be more aggressive on the basepaths next season.
In our game, more aggression on the basepaths is a beautiful thing. Tabata has 35 steals over 193 career big league games thus far.
What is the [profane] deal with Pedro Alvarez? He was supposed to be *good*. PROMISES WERE MADE, fantasy expert. Homers were to be hit. What happened?
Honestly, if Alvarez didn't play such a talent-scarce position, I'd give him the Brett Wallace treatment in this feature. Wouldn't even mention him. The kid hit .191/.272/.289 last season over 262 plate appearances, striking out 80 times. He'll need to make a huge leap at age-25 just to achieve deep league fantasy relevance. Yes, he was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2008 draft, and his first year of pro ball was productive — he hit 27 bombs across two minor league levels in '09. But his conditioning, confidence and work ethic have all been questioned over the past year, and the Bucs added Casey McGehee via trade during the off-season. That was hardly a vote of confidence. Alvarez, at the moment, seems more like a punchline than a prospect. The only reason you need to keep him on the radar at all is that third base is a minefield in NL-only after the top-five or six names.
We know there aren't any aces in Pittsburgh's rotation, but are there any starters here that we can possibly trust?
Short answer: Nope, not really.
The Bucs' rotation again looks like a dangerous buffet for streamers, with few names that deserve draft day consideration. Last year, this staff delivered four starters who posted sub-6.0 K/9 ratios: Charlie Morton (5.77), Paul Maholm (5.38), Jeff Karstens (5.32) and Kevin Correia (4.50). It's never advisable to carry guys like that in leagues with innings limits. Maholm is gone, but the rest remain. Don't mess with them. James McDonald offered a better strikeout-rate (7.47 K/9), but his fantasy ratios didn't really help anyone (4.21 ERA, 1.49 WHIP). If there's a ray of hope for the 27-year-old McDonald, it's the fact that he improved in the second half last year. Check the splits.
If I were going to make a case for any Pittsburgh starter (which is not my intention), it would be Erik Bedard. He arrives in the non-DH league on a one-year deal, coming off a moderately useful season. The veteran lefty posted a 3.62 ERA and 1.28 WHIP over 129.1 innings for Seattle and Boston in 2011, striking out 125 batters. He's as delicate as spun sugar, though, having visited the DL with shoulder, hip and knee issues in recent seasons. Bedard has thrown less than 300 total innings over the past four years, so banking on a healthy campaign would be ridiculous. Still, if you want to take a flier in the $1 bin, have at it.
OK, up at the top you mentioned some notable prospects. Which players should we care about in dynasty leagues?
The Pirates had the first overall pick in the 2011 draft, and they used it on right-handed starter Gerrit Cole, an massively talented 21-year-old. Upon signing, Cole immediately joined the ranks of baseball's elite pitching prospects, at least on my board (alongside Julio Teheran, Shelby Miller and Jacob Turner, behind Matt Moore). Cole's fastball is just a couple ticks below Strasburg's — though he reportedly hit triple-digits in the Arizona Fall League — his slider is considered a plus pitch, and his change-up has been described by no less an authority than Keith Law as "Johan Santana good." Which, if you didn't know, is pretty good. Cole was actually drafted in the first round by the Yankees back in 2008, but he chose to attend UCLA. He's legit. You're fortunate to have him, Pittsburgh. He won't necessarily need years of seasoning before reaching the big leagues, but let's not expect a fantasy contribution in 2012.
The Bucs have a second young right-hander in the system who earns high marks, though he may not arrive in the majors as quickly as Cole. Jameson Taillon was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft, and he just delivered an impressive-enough first season of pro ball. Taillon struck out 97 batters over 92.2 innings at Single-A at age 19, posting a 1.20 WHIP. The organization was clearly cautious with his workload, and they also restricted his use of secondary pitches (curve, slider), so his minor league stats don't tell a full story.
Switch-hitting outfielder Josh Bell is generally regarded as the top position player in Pittsburgh's farm system, but he's just 19, years away from the big leagues. File away the name for later use. Another young outfielder, Starling Marte, is closer to the big leagues and thus closer to making a fantasy impact. Marte won the batting crown in the Double-A Eastern League last season, hitting .332/.370/.500 with 12 homers, 38 doubles and 24 steals. He only drew 22 walks while striking out 100 times, so that's a concern, but he's hit well at every minor league stop, and he'll likely make another jump in level this season.
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