Baseball 2011: What constitutes improvement?

Three reasons why Pirates will -- or will not -- finally turn the corner

PHILADELPHIA -- Just forget it.

That is, by far, the simplest way to analyze the Pittsburgh Baseball Club's 125th season that opens Friday: These Pirates will be made up of mostly the same players who limped to a 57-105 record last year, they added little in the offseason and ... well, they are the Pirates.

The 2010 team left no stone of ineptitude unturned, finishing 30th among Major League Baseball's 30 teams in ERA, 29th in batting average, 29th in runs, 25th in home runs, and the defense made a first-to-worst plunge in fielding percentage.

The bigger picture is no brighter: Since the 162-game schedule began in 1961, only three of the 34 teams that won 57 or fewer games had a winning record the next season, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. The 1973 Texas Rangers went from 57 victories to 84, the 1979 Oakland Athletics from 54 to 83 and the 1988 Baltimore Orioles had the greatest leap from 54-107 to 87-75.

The Pirates have finished with 57 or fewer victories in a full season six times in baseball's modern era -- 1900 and on -- and the only time they transformed instantly into winners was in 1917-18 with an improvement from 51-103 to 65-60. The 1918 season was shortened by World War I.

It is, to be sure, asking a lot.

So, perhaps the most pressing question regarding these Pirates is this: If it looks unrealistic to end the franchise's record string of 18 consecutive losing seasons, what constitutes improvement?

Here are three reasons why the Pirates might substantially improve, and three reasons why they will not.


3. The new skipper

Clint Hurdle's booming voice and back-slapping manner reverberated all through spring training, and it appeared to resonate, too.

"The guy's just amazing," new right fielder Matt Diaz said. "Every which way you look, he's there."

That includes the clubhouse, a place where some managers tread lightly. Perhaps Hurdle will, too, in time. But the popular notion for now is that the team's youth demands a more visible presence, and Hurdle is more than up to that.

That jolt could prove most beneficial on the road, where the team went 17-64 last season under quiet, conservative John Russell. If it is true that a team takes on its manager's personality, then that team's timid performance in opponents' stadiums might not have been all about talent. Remember that the Pirates went a respectable 40-41 at PNC Park.

But it will take more than Hurdle's brash "All in!" pronouncements to effect serious change. He will need to handle -- and improve -- the majors' worst pitching staff, he will need to get the most out of the four young everyday players, and he will need to infuse faith into a franchise that long ago ran dry of that stuff.

"I know it's been tough here," Hurdle said. "But we're looking forward, not back."

2. Back-end bullpen

The bullpen as a whole does not appear nearly as strong as the one that opened last season, when Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek had supporting roles for Octavio Dotel, Javier Lopez, D.J. Carrasco and others.

Now, Hanrahan is the closer and Meek the setup man after both reached new heights last season. Hanrahan was one of four relievers in the majors with 100-plus strikeouts, and Meek was an All-Star with a sterling average of 1.05 walks and/or hits per inning. Overall, the Pirates were 42-4 when they had a lead after seven innings, 48-2 when they had a lead after eight.

That is a precious commodity for any team to have, even one that is building with youth.

"Our bullpen definitely will be a strength," newcomer Joe Beimel said. "And a young team needs that. If you're losing leads in the seventh or eighth innings all the time, that can wear on a younger team. You can get down. You might not bounce back the next day as easily."

Hanrahan and Meek, despite a shaky spring for both, should be able to handle the final two innings and, thus, reduce the load on the uncertain starting rotation. Chris Resop and Jeff Karstens should make for reliable middlemen, too. But Beimel's elbow pain has him on the disabled list, newcomer Jose Veras has a history of too many walks, and most of the rest lack experience.

So, how many innings can those starters deliver?

Well, they lasted six-plus innings only 88 times last year. And the team went 15-59 when they lasted less than that, as the bullpen gradually wore down.

This spring?

Don't ask.

1. More bop from the bats

Andrew McCutchen grinned when asked why these Pirates shouldn't be able to hit.

"Maybe if we had our limbs chopped off. That's the only thing I can think of," he replied. "I feel like there's no way, shape or form that we won't score runs. With the lineup we have, some power, the speed, I think we'll get a lot done at the plate and on the basepaths."

Indeed, the offense looks poised to be the greatest area of improvement and, in an intangible sense, the facet that will make the team at least more fun to watch this summer.

McCutchen batted .286 with 16 home runs in 2010, his first full season, and many baseball insiders envision a big-time breakout. His magnificent spring has done nothing to quell that.

"Look out, man," McCutchen said.

It might not be fair to expect Jose Tabata and Neil Walker to improve upon their respective .299 and .296 rookie averages, but both will be entering their first full seasons, so their season-long impact on the team can be greater.

Same is true of Pedro Alvarez: His slow-start debut left his final average at .256, but he was everything as advertised with a huge September that raised his power numbers to 16 home runs and 64 RBIs in 95 games.

There is no more potent variable in this lineup than whether or not Alvarez can be similarly productive over a full season.

"I know that, and I'm looking forward to the challenge," Alvarez said. "I want to be that guy who comes through for his team."

The Bill James Handbook, using a computer-based model, forecasts Alvarez batting .277 with 27 home runs and 103 RBIs.

That would be quite some lift.

"This team is going to hit," right fielder Garrett Jones said. "I don't have any doubt about that."


3. Defense

Frank Coonelly, the Pirates' president, had set an offseason goal of improving the infield defense, and the team did that at first base by signing free agent Lyle Overbay, a good glove man. But the rest remains just as uncertain as last year, and that does not mesh well with equally uncertain pitching.

Alvarez committed 17 errors in 94 starts at third base, and doubts were raised anew this winter about whether his thick frame will eventually force a move to first. He is more solid muscularly than last season, but the extra 5 pounds probably will not add mobility.

Ronny Cedeno is still an enigma, capable of the sensational and the sloppy in the same inning. He has all the physical tools to be a dynamic shortstop, but his lapses and lack of confidence have held him back.

Walker looked good at times in his first career experience at second base, but his ultimate zone rating -- a complex defensive formula used by several teams, including the Pirates -- was minus-17.1. Only St. Louis' Skip Schumaker was worse among everyday second basemen. Walker is bright and athletic enough to improve, though, and already showed pluses to that effect in the past month.

Overbay, who has worked closest with all three infielders this spring, predicted there will be no sequel.

"I don't see that at all," Overbay said. "Maybe the best piece of advice I've ever gotten came from Matt Williams: Slow the game down. If you watch the really good infielders, that's what they do. Some of our guys, it seems like sometimes they rush. That's when mistakes happen."

He cited a spring play by Alvarez.

"Pedro made a diving play, and he thinks he's got to spring right up and fire it. Well, this guy was really fast down the line, but Pedro still threw him out by three steps. You can take that split-second, get up, square your feet, make the right throw. Don't panic. Same with Neil learning a new position. There are going to be growing pains."

2. Starting pitching

Improvement in this area should be academic, actually, given that it is hard to be worse.

The starters went 34-84 -- fewest victories since 1952 -- with a 5.27 ERA, and they had no 10-game winner in a full season for just the third time in franchise history. Opponents batted .303 against Paul Maholm, and Charlie Morton and Ross Ohlendorf combined for three wins over 38 starts.

All three are in the rotation again, joined by promising James McDonald and the lone addition, Kevin Correia.

"You're not going to hear any one of us say we had a good year last year," Maholm said. "But I think we all learned something. We all grew. Now, it's time to do it. It's time to step up. Let's go six, seven innings, not use up the bullpen, keep the team in the game. It's our job to set the tone."

All five have had spurts of success, even the combustible but talented Morton, and bringing those traits out consistently will be the task of Ray Searage, the pitching coach who took over when Joe Kerrigan was fired in midseason last year. Kerrigan was more number-cruncher than teacher, and Searage has drawn praise from the pitchers for his hands-on instruction that surely is a better fit for a young staff.

Still, that task looks daunting.

1. It's not now yet

Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington have spoken enthusiastically about 2011, with Huntington recently declaring, "It's time." But there are few firm indications of that, tangibly or otherwise.

The statistical site, using a computer-based model, forecasts the Pirates to finish fifth in the Central Division, ahead of the Houston Astros, with a 71-91 record that would mark a 14-game improvement. That might be optimistic, as most experts of the human variety have the Pirates finishing last yet again.

The organization's elite pitching -- top prospects Jameson Taillon, Luis Heredia and Stetson Allie -- is several years away. There is an encouraging wave at Class AAA in Rudy Owens, Bryan Morris and others, but few are projecting top-of-the-rotation futures for anyone there. And acquiring pitching from the outside involves either big-time spending or shrewd trading, neither of which has been a trademark of this management team.

So, what does 2011 mean to the Pirates?

"I think you can see this team assert itself, turn the corner," Overbay said. "Confidence might be an issue right now, with all the young guys, but I can see that walking out of the door here in no time. The ability's there. It's just a matter of them believing in it."

Dejan Kovacevic: . Find more at DK on Pittsburgh Sports . First Published March 30, 2011 4:00 AM


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