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Tag:Neil Walker
Posted on: March 7, 2012 11:43 pm
Edited on: March 8, 2012 4:30 am
 

Injury roundup: Wright, Posey, Trout and more

By Dayn Perry

David WrightInjury news and notes from Wednesday's camps ... 

  • Pirates second baseman Neil Walker missed Wednesday's contest with back tightness. As a precautionary measure, he's likely to sit out the next two to three games. [CBS Pittsburgh]

  • While Orioles second baseman Brian Roberts is able to take part in some low-level baseball activities, he still has no idea when he'll return to game action or even face live pitching after suffering multiple concussions.

    "It's still a progression," he said. "We have steps that we're taking, and it's a pretty systematic approach so I don't just go do everything I want every day. My doctor lays out a plan every day, and we kind of go by that. I'm definitely better than I was four months ago, so that's good. It's never as fast as you want, but we're getting there." [Baltimore Sun

  • Boston lefty Andrew Miller, who's in the mix for a spot in the rotation, won't be traveling with the team on Thursday because of slight stiffness in his throwing elbow. [WEEI]

PROJECTED LINEUPS AND ROTATIONS


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Posted on: November 26, 2011 1:46 pm
 

Homegrown Team: Pittsburgh Pirates

Jose Bautista

By C. Trent Rosecrans


What if players were only permitted to stay with the team that originally made them a professional? No trades, no Rule-5 Draft, no waivers, no minor- or major-league free agency ... once you are a professional baseball player, you stay in that organization. This series shows how all 30 teams would look. We give you: Homegrown teams.

In 2011 the Pirates extended their streak of losing seasons to 19, finishing 72-90 after a promising start. However, there are signs of the team finally putting it together, with much of their talent coming from within the organization. Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker are among the future stars the team has drafted and kept. If Pittsburgh had been able to keep a couple more of its homegrown players, the Pirates could at the very least be looking at fielding a winning team.

Lineup

1. Andrew McCutchen, CF
2. Neil Walker, 2B
3. Jose Bautista, RF
4. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
5. Ryan Doumit, 1B
6. Jeff Keppinger, SS
7. Ronny Paulino, C
8. Nyjer Morgan, LF

Starting Rotation

1. Paul Maholm
2. Bronson Arroyo
3. Tom Gorzelanny
4. Brad Lincoln
5. Chris Young

Bullpen

Closer - Juan Oviedo (Leo Nunez)
Set up - Matt Capps, Mike Gonzlaez, John Grabow, Sean Burnett, Tony Watson
Long - Tim Wakefield, Zack Duke

Notable Bench Players

Pedro Alvarez, Rajai Davis, Brent Lillibridge, Nate McLouth, Alex Presley

What's Good?

The top of the lineup is the envy of just about any organization -- there's speed at the top and power throughout the first four batters. Jose Bautista will forever be the one that got away, but not just for the Pirates, who drafted him in 2000, but also for the Orioles, Rays, Royals and Mets, who all acquired -- a got rid of -- Bautista at some point. But still, the Pirates had him twice and are now watching him blossom as one of the game's best players while in a different uniform. In addition to the top of the lineup, the bottom of the lineup isn't too bad, while the bullpen is stout. 

What's Not?

The rotation isn't going to intimidate too many batters, but the team will put up some runs and leads have a good chance of being held with that bullpen. Keppinger is a solid bat and makes all the plays in front of him, but doesn't quite have the range most teams look for at shortstop. He can play there, but it isn't an ideal spot.

Comparison to real 2011

The Pirates rotation overachieved in the first half of 2011 and flopped in the second -- as Pittsburgh went 25-47 after finding themselves trailing by just a game in the NL Central at the All-Star break. While this lineup would put up more runs, its starters would allow more. That said, the improved lineup and bullpen would be good for several more wins and probably even give the team a winning record. 

Up next: Chicago Cubs

For more baseball news, rumors and analysis, follow @eyeonbaseball on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed.
Posted on: November 1, 2011 5:40 pm
Edited on: November 1, 2011 10:20 pm
 

Team-by-team NL free agency outlooks



By C. Trent Rosecrans

With open free agency set to hit us at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, it's worth taking a quick look at what every single team is going to be looking for. We've already done detailed breakdowns in the R.I.P. series, so here are some quick hitters for the National League:

East
Atlanta Braves | R.I.P.
Needs: shortstop, corner outfielder, relief pitching
Money to spend?: Not much. The Braves' biggest need was getting rid of Derrek Lowe, and they did that and have saved $5 million to boot. The team has good, young starters, but put too many innings on their bullpen. They'll need more bullpen arms and also a bat in left field and a shortstop. With Tyler Pastronicky just about ready, the team could use a veteran backup just in case he doesn't work out.

Miami Marlins | R.I.P.
Needs: starting pitching, center field
Money to spend? Oh yeah… with the team preparing to move into a new stadium, owner Jeffrey Loria is expected to make a splash in free agency and could raise payroll to the $100 million range. South Florida will be a favorite of baseball agents in the offseason who will use the Marlins as leverage -- they may even be more popular than the "mystery team" of the past off seasons. The Marlins will be rumored as a possible landing point for nearly every big free agent. The question is, which ones -- if any -- will actually take their talents to South Beach.

New York Mets | R.I.P.
Needs: starting pitching, closer, relief pitching, middle infield
Money to spend? There are plenty of questions about the Mets ownership group, so nobody outside GM Sandy Alderson really knows what's going on and how much money he has to play with. It doesn't look like the team will go crazy in trying to re-sign Jose Reyes. The team will instead hope to improve its bullpen and rotation.

More Free Agency
Position rankings

Philadelphia Phillies | R.I.P.
Needs: shortstop, corner outfielder, closer, relief pitching, first base
Money to spend? It seems like they always find it when they need it, so there's no real concern about the budget. Even with Roy Oswalt likely to leave Philadelphia, there are few worries about the team's rotation. The bullpen, however, will need to be addressed. Ryan Madson may be re-signed and used as the closer, but the Phillies need middle-innings guys, as well. Left field is still an issue and the team could look to upgrade there, but will also need to address first base while Ryan Howard recovers from his Achilles injury. John Mayberry Jr. can play first, but moving him there creates a spot in the outfield.

Washington Nationals | R.I.P.
Needs: center field, starting pitching, relief pitching
Money to spend? Oh yeah. Like the Marlins, the Nationals have money to spend and unlike the Marlins, they have shown a willingness to actually use it. Last year the team overspent on Jayson Werth, something that certainly caught the eyes of free-agents-to-be. Several top names will certainly be courted by the Nationals, including Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder and C.J. Wilson. The Nationals really can't be counted out on anyone.

Central
Chicago Cubs | R.I.P.
Needs: first base, third base, closer, relief pitching, right field
Money to spend? The Ricketts opened the pocketbooks for their general manager, so it's unlikely they'll close 'em for players. Epstein says he wants to build a team from the bottom up, but that takes time and there will be pressure to win right away, and free agency will be part of that. Expect the Cubs to at least talk to the likes of Pujols and Fielder, even if they don't sign them. With Epstein in the fold, it'll certainly be interesting to see what route the Cubs take.

Cincinnati Reds | R.I.P.
Needs: closer, relief pitcher, corner outfielder, shortstop
Money to spend? Not much. It looks like the team will stand pat in the rotation, but after not picking up the option on Francisco Cordero, Cincinnati will need someone to finish out games. Last year Walt Jocketty stayed quiet during the offseason, but this winter that may not happen. However, the team is more likely to use the trade market than spend big in free agency.

Houston Astros | R.I.P.
Needs: shortstop, relief pitching
Money to spend? The Astros are in full-on rebuilding mode, as evidenced by their July fire sale. There's also the holdup of the sale of the team and the possible switch to the American League. If Jim Crane is approved by MLB, he may want to find his own general manager. The Astros won't be much of a player in the free agent market, looking for low-priced.

Milwaukee Brewers | R.I.P.
Needs: first baseman, shortstop, third baseman, relief pitching
Money to spend? Some -- for the right people. The team will try to make a pitch to retain Fielder and possibly Jerry Hairston Jr., but are likely celebrating to be free of Yuniesky Betancourt. The team probably won't be in the race for Reyes or even Jimmy Rollins, but could be in the market for a second-tier shortstop like Clint Barmes. They'll also need to add some arms in the bullpen, but could try to re-sign the likes of Takashi Saito and LaTroy Hawkins.

Pittsburgh Pirates | R.I.P.
Needs: catcher, first base, shortstop, corner outfielder, starting pitching
Money to spend? Yes, as much as $25 million or even a little more, but they also have plenty of holes. The Pirates took some steps forward in 2011, but will need to fill out their roster and will likely be going for the second-tier players to fill out a lineup around Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia, Charlie Morton and James McDonald.

St. Louis Cardinals | R.I.P.
Needs: First base, shortstop, relief pitching
Money to spend? Some for the right player. The Cardinals have nearly $60 million tied up for 2012 in six players -- Matt Holliday, Kyle Lohse, Lance Berkman, Chris Carpenter, Adam Wainwright and Jake Westbrook. There's also the little matter of Pujols -- who will listen to offers from the Cardinals, but is unlikely to give much (or any) of a hometown discount. The team also needs a shortstop and could use another left-handed reliever.

West
Arizona Diamondbacks | R.I.P.
Needs: second base, middle infield, relief pitching
Money to spend? There's not much tinkering expected of a team that surprised everyone by winning the NL West in 2011 -- the rotation is looking good and most of the positions are already manned. The team declined its option on second baseman Aaron Hill, but could also look at former Diamondback second baseman Kelly Johnson. The bullpen was radically rebuilt last season, but could use some tweaking.

Colorado Rockies | R.I.P.
Needs: starting pitching, second base, third base
Money to spend? The team needs a starter and also two infield spots -- all without spending much money. They could be looking to trade to find their infielders and a lefty reliever. But they also need a pitcher that can throw 200 innings in a season, but those don't come cheap on the open market. They'd also like a right-handed bat.

Los Angeles Dodgers | R.I.P.
Needs:catcher, second base, third base, starting pitching, relief pitching
Money to spend? Who knows? With the Frank McCourt mess, nobody knows what the future holds for the Dodgers. If they are sold, the timing may still be off for any big additions to the budget. In a perfect world, the Dodgers are looking at the big names like Fielder, Reyes and Wilson, but it doesn't seem like that will happen.

San Diego Padres | R.I.P.
Needs: closer, relief pitching, corner outfield, middle infield
Money to spend? The Padres have money to spend and spots to fill -- but don't expect them to be wooing the big names. Big money in San Diego is still small money to the likes of the Phillies and Cubs. The highest-priced free agent likely to sign with San Diego is closer Heath Bell.

San Francisco Giants | R.I.P.
Needs: shortstop, corner outfielder
Money to spend? The Giants will spend for the right player, and Reyes may just be that player. Or Rollins. The team may also try to retain Carlos Beltran, but at his age and injury history, the Giants are unlikely to gamble with a multiyear contract.

For more baseball news, rumors and analysis, follow @eyeonbaseball on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed.

Posted on: September 19, 2011 11:56 pm
Edited on: September 20, 2011 12:26 am
 

Picking the National League's best defenders



By C. Trent Rosecrans

The Gold Gloves are one of baseball's toughest awards to decide -- and sometimes toughest to understand. Unlike many of the game's other awards, the Gold Gloves are voted on by managers and coaches, and every year it seems there's a winner or two that seems to win the award more with their bat than their glove.

Not only do some players seem to win it with something other than their glove, sometimes the award can be a lot like the Supreme Court, once you get elected, you're not going to lose your seat.

That said, it's a difficult award to vote for. There are better fielding statistics coming out every year, yet most are still in their infancy and can tell you only so much. Good defense, sometimes can be a lot like the definition Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart gave for pornograpy in Jacobelis v. Ohio in 1964: "I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embrued within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it." 

With that in mind, perhaps the voters for the Gold Gloves should be the scouts, but instead I'll try my hand at picking out the best defensive players in the National League.

Catcher: Yadier Molina, Cardinals

As tough as it is to use numbers to evaluate fielders, it's even tougher with catchers. At least the numbers with other fielders have some meaning, with catchers there's so much more to what they do defensively that it's hard not to go on reputation -- and nobody has a better reputation than Molina.

Others considered: Carlos Ruiz, Phillies; Brian McCann, Braves.

First base: Joey Votto, Reds

When Votto was coming up, people knew he could hit -- that was hard to ignore -- but his reputation at first base was nowhere near as good. Even as a rookie, he often struggled, especially on throws to a pitcher covering first. Since then, he's improved every year and this year he has proven himself to be the best defensive first baseman in the league. Votto, last year's MVP, covers more ground at first than any other first baseman in the league, which means it can be tough to get a hit if you hit it on the ground to the right side of the Reds infield, beacuse of the next guy on the list.

Others considered: Albert Pujols, Cardinals. Todd Helton, Rockies.

Brandon PhillipsSecond base: Brandon Phillips, Reds

A two-time Gold Glover, Phillips should be in line for his third. There may be no other player in baseball with as long of a highlight-reel as Phillips, who seemingly makes another amazing play every night.

Others considered: Chase Utley, Phillies, Omar Infante, Marlins, Neil Walker, Pirates

Third base: Pablo Sandoval, Giants

There are players with better defensive reputations than the Kung Fu Panda, but nobody's had a better year. The advanced stats don't tell you everything yet, but they're still pretty good. Sandoval leads qualified National League third basemen in UZR (12.3), UZR/150 (21.2) and plus-minus (20). 

Others considered: Placido Polanco, Phillies; Ryan Zimmerman, Nationals.

Shortstop: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies

The Rockies may know a little something about drafting defensive shortstops -- they picked two of the best in the league, Tulowitzki and the Astros' Clint Barmes. Finally healthy, Barmes was outstanding defensively for the Astros, while Tulowitzki seems like the second coming of Cal Ripken. 

Others considered: Alex Gonzalez, Braves; Jose Reyes, Mets; Clint Barmes, Astros.

Left field: Carlos Gonzalez, Rockies

The voting has changed this year to award Gold Gloves to each of the three outfield positions instead of three generic outfielder awards that usually went to center fielders. Carlos Gonzalez is tough to categorize, but considering he's played more games in left than any other spot, he's the easy choice here. He's started 60 games in left, 34 in right and 28 in center. He's played all three well, which isn't easy at spacious Coors Field, committing only one error on the season.

Others considered: Matt Holliday, Cardinals. Gerardo Parra, Diamondbacks. Tony Gwynn, Dodgers.

Shane VictorinoCenter field: Shane Victorino, Phillies

This is one stacked category, with several deserving players. Under the old rules it would be easy, you'd have three center fielders and give them the three Gold Gloves. Under the new rules, it's a tougher choice. Victorino has had an MVP-type year, and no small part of that has been patrolling center field for the Phillies. The Flyin' Hawaiian is as good as anyone out there and his error-less season gives him the edge.

Others considered: Chris Young, Diamondbacks; Carlos Gomez, Brewers; Cameron Maybin, Padres; Rick Ankiel, Nationals; Andrew McCutchen, Pirates.

Right field: Mike Stanton, Marlins

He may be known best for the moon shots off his bat, but Stanton is a surprisingly good defensive outfielder. Stanton has the combination of athleticism and arm strength to be the best defensive right fielder in the game.

Others considered: Jay Bruce, Reds; Carlos Beltran, Giants; Jason Heyward, Braves.

Pitcher: R.A. Dickey, Mets

A knuckleball pitcher needs to field his position well -- there are plenty of bad hits coming back to the mound off poor contact. Dickey has been very good fielding his position and helped his team with his glove.

Others considered: Jake Westbrook, Cardinals; Bronson Arroyo, Reds; Hiroki Kuroda, Dodgers; Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers; Derek Lowe, Braves.

For more baseball news, rumors and analysis, follow @eyeonbaseball on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed.
Posted on: August 19, 2011 6:00 pm
Edited on: August 19, 2011 9:26 pm
 

Report: Pirates to sign Tabata to six-year deal

Tabata

By Evan Brunell

The Pirates are following on the heels of teams such as the Rockies and Rays of recent years in locking up their young players to long-term deals despite these players being a ways away from arbitration, never mind free agency.

The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports the Pirates have agreed to a six-year deal with outfielder Jose Tabata and are deep in discussions with second basemen Neil Walker. Tabata only debuted last June, but has quickly integrated himself into the fabric of the team, hitting a cumulative .285/.348/.385 over 747 plate appearances the past two seasons, swiping 33 bags. Tabata, who turned 23 on Aug. 12 and was acquired from the Yankees in a 2008 trade, doesn't have much power but has hit exclusively at the top of the order for Pittsburgh and should remain there over the life of his new six-year, deal, which kicks in immediately and guarantees his deal through 2016. That means Tabata isn't signing away a guaranteed year of free agency, but did  agree to three successive club options. In that vein, it's very similar to the four-year deal James Shields inked with the Rays for the 2008 season that has three club options built into the contract.

Don't expect a significant figure to be attached to Tabata's deal, even if it's for six seasons. That's because Tabata is giving up the chance to earn significant money through arbitration in exchange for cost-certainty. Instead of taking the risk of being worth a $10 million deal in the final year of arbitration in 2016, Tabata will take guaranteed money that he will receive regardless of injury or attrition. As an idea of what Tabata could receive on the free-agent market, first note that the first two years of the deal will be close to the league minimum -- a total number of $1 million over the next two years sounds right. For purposes of arbitration, let's use Michael Bourn, who is a close-enough approximate of Tabata. Bourn played for $2.4 million in his first year of arbitration and is now currently on a $4.4 million deal. He figures to make around $7 million in 2012, his final season before free agency. That gives a total price of $13.8 million. Add in the first two years of Tabata's deal, and now you have a framework for what Tabata will sign. So let's say six years and $15 million.

(Update: Tabata will earn $14.25 million over the life of the contract, as ESPNDeportes.com reports, saying Tabata's deal increases his 2011 salary to $500,000, plus a $1 million signing bonus. Next season, Tabata will earn $750,000, and then jump to $1 million in 2013, $3 million in 2014, $4 million in 2015 and $4.5 million in 2016. The club options can total up to $37.25 million. ESPN Deportes also noted that Tabata and his agency, ACES Inc., parted ways due to contract negotiations.

"There were philosophical differences over some aspects of the contract, but there's still a lot of respect," a source said of the parting. "In the best interest of both, the parties decided to separate, without ruling out the possibility of working together again."

The Pirates are hoping to lock up Neil Walker to a similar deal that Tabata will be playing under. While a final agreement is not near, the two sites have had advanced talks, team and league sources told the Tribune-Review.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, talks stalled with center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who is already one of the best center fielders in the game and would certainly charge a higher price to sign a long-term deal. While it's not known how much McCutchen is asking for, it's possible he won't be as willing to trade future earnings for cost-certainty, or that the Pirates feel a long-term deal at a higher cost is beneficial.

For more baseball news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeonBaseball on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed.
Posted on: July 13, 2011 7:57 pm
Edited on: July 14, 2011 5:32 am
 

Pirates looking beyond .500



By C. Trent Rosecrans


PHOENIX -- The number hounding Pittsburgh baseball since last September is 18.

"Our second baseman Neil Walker wears No. 18 and he's a heck of a player," Pirates closer Joel Hanrahan said. "Is that what you're talking about?"

That response generated laughs, and maybe Hanrahan is so used to the question that he had the stock answer ready. Who wouldn't try to deflect questions about 18 consecutive losing seasons? With a 47-43 record at the All-Star break, Pittsburgh is in position to make sure 19 doesn't become the new standard in U.S. professional sports.

"But really, talking about [Walker], it's fitting, he's from Pittsburgh, born and raised there, and he wears No. 18, maybe there's something there," Hanrahan said. Walker is part of an influx of young talent in Pittsburgh, along with the likes of the flame-throwing Hanrahan and center fielder Andrew McCutchen, 24.

At this week's All-Star Game, the Pirates had three representatives, as Hanrahan and McCutchen were joined by starter Kevin Correia.

"We have more guys that have opportunities to make the team [in the future]," McCutchen said. "Things are changing for us. We're not just here because someone had to represent the team, we're here because we earned the opportunity."

Although McCutchen was a late add to the team, many felt he shouldn't have just been an initial pick, but the National League's starting center fielder. The 24-year-old McCutchen is hitting .291 with 15 homers and 54 RBI and may be the best center fielder in the game.

In fact, it seemed McCutchen got more recognition for not making the team than he did when he finally made it. But that goes to show that even though the fans voting for the All-Star team didn't see fit to pick McCutchen, most observers knew an injustice when they saw it (well, as far as injustices and All-Star games go).

"We had Joel Hanrahan that made the team and he deserved it, but it felt like people were talking and talking and talking about me," McCutchen said. "It was definitely an eye-opener that people felt I should be here."

Many feel he should be back year after year, especially if the Pirates continue to improve, something many expect.

"You can tell there's a different feel over there this year," said the Reds' Jay Bruce. "You have Neil Walker, he's having a great year, Andrew McCutchen is being Andrew McCutchen, he's one of the most exciting players in the game. They're solid, man. They've changed the culture there. The new manager [Clint Hurdle]. They've done a really good job and I don't think they're going anywhere."

Bruce was part of a franchise that had gone nearly a decade without a winning season that stepped up and won its division. That's exactly what the Pirates are hoping to do as they trail the Brewers and Cardinals by just a game in the National League Central. The title is within reach, so there's no reason to just settle for .500.

"It's more for the fans than for us, because that's not our goal. It'd be great for the city, just for them to see that we've done better than we've done for the last 18 years," McCutchen said. "But after that comes and goes, what's next? Nobody's going to be satisfied with that. We're hungry for more, the fans are hungry for more. That's why we don't set our goals to just be over .500. We're hungry to win a championship. If you win a championship, you'll be over .500."

With the Steelers and Penguins having earned titles in recent years, the Pirates would like to turn Western Pennsylvania into the next New England with major titles in several sports.

"We all know the fans are passionate about their sports and knowledgeable about their sports, we said game one, if we start winning, it's going to be like the Steelers' games or the Penguins' games," Hanrahan said. "The fans are there, it's just getting them out of hiding so they aren't embarrassed to come out anymore."

They shouldn't be.

For more baseball news, rumors and analysis, follow @cbssportsmlb on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed.



Posted on: May 9, 2011 8:43 pm
Edited on: May 9, 2011 9:03 pm
 

Pirates reach .500, eye bright future

Pirates

By Evan Brunell

The Pittsburgh Pirates finishing .500? There's a whole generation of baseball fans that don't understand that concept, but that's exactly where the Bucs find themselves at just over one month into the season.

Now 17-17, Pittsburgh will look to go one game over .500 as they face the Dodgers Monday night. If it can pull that off, it will be the first time since May 29, 2004 that the club was over .500 this late in a season. Unfortunately, 2004's squad finished with 89 losses and the ensuing years saw an even worse decline, so that statistic doesn't mean that the club has made any type of progress.

But when you look at 2004's club against 2011's, it's clear that progress has been made.

Back then, the Pirates weren't as young a club, although many were still under 30 years of age. Some ended up with good seasons, with a 26-year-old Jack Wilson slashing .308/.335/.459 with 41 doubles, which remains his best year to date. Craig Wilson at age 27 cranked 29 homers but never again approached these levels and was out of baseball after 2007. Most of the other hitters with one notable exception in Jason Bay have gone on to vanish or barely cling to relevancy (Jason Kendall and Ty Wigginton).

The pitching side of the ledger had a fantastic year by Oliver Perez and Kris Benson's solid 20-start stint prior to being traded to the Mets hide what was a poor staff that was shored up by a strong bullpen. All told, while the team was relatively young, it was only as good as it was thanks to the performances of five players, four of which never approached 2004 levels again.

It's a different story in 2011, with a much younger club. That's not reflected in the average age of the squads as 2011's 27.9 average age is higher than 2004's 27.45, but the Pirates boast a yonger core with the potential to be among the game's best. The bullpen has been effective to start the year  and the rotation is deeper than 2004's counterparts. That may come as an oddity when Kevin Correia is the ace of the club, but it's no less true. Offensively, Pedro Alvarez, Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker form a quartet that 2004's club can't hold a candle to.

For the Pirates to sustain their newfound dominance, however, they have to step up their prospect procurement. This is a team that is thin on pitching and saw that partly addressed in last season's draft with the selections of Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie, but still has an overall farm that Baseball America ranked 19th last season, largely due to the graduations of the offensive core. Compare that to 2004's ranking of 11, topped by Zach Duke and a host of other pitchers that failed to ascend.

It's no wonder that the 2004 club dipped to 89 losses, and as promising as 2011's club is, Pittsburgh will have to look ahead toward next year as a more realistic chance of breaking the streak of futility. It is difficult to envision Correia continuing to pitch to a 2.91 ERA, and as interesting as Charlie Morton's progress is, a regression has to be expected until (and if) he fixes his control problems, which he took a step forward in doing so in his last start by allowing only one free pass. And while James McDonald can be counted on to improve, it'll be balanced out by Jeff Karstens's probable regression.

For Pittsburgh to have any hope at finishing at .500, it will come from an offense ranked 22nd in runs scored so far. The entire infield plus Tabata and McCutchen are off to quite a slow start. Their expected improvement could offset pitching regression, but the other issue at play is Pittsburgh's division counterparts. Now that Milwaukee has its top three starting pitchers healthy and contributing, so their 14-20 record will turn around in a hurry and that's bad news for the Pirates given the imbalanced schedule that pits Pittsburgh against its NL compatriots for the majority of the games. Thus, even if the offensive regrouping does offset the pitching, it's difficult to envision a .500 record being sustained, especially once injuries hit the pitching staff; the club has virtually no pitching to speak of in Triple-A which is a flaw that will get exposed at some point.

Still, the improvement in the Steel City has to lend a certain amount of optimism to its long-suffering fans, who would glady take any type of improvement even if it it's not an 81-81 record. While even 1997 and 1998's 83 loss-seasons look out of reach, the Pirates appear poised to post the franchise's best record since 2004, and could even go beyond. That will set up quite the storyline for next year, when the Pirates look to avoid 20 straight seasons of finishing under .500.

For more baseball news, rumors and analysis, follow@cbssportsmlb on Twitter or subscribe to the RSS feed. 

PHOTO: Steve Pearce, No. 51 of the Pittsburgh Pirates, celebrates with teammate Neil Walker, No. 18, after Ryan Doumit, No. 41, hit a three-run home run against the Houston Astros during the game on May 8, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Posted on: April 6, 2011 6:24 pm
Edited on: April 6, 2011 6:27 pm
 

Pirates impressive early on


By C. Trent Rosecrans

The Pirates are better than you think.

Is Pittsburgh going to challenge for the NL Central crown? No. Are they going to break their streak of losing seasons? Probably not. But they they will be better this season than they have been in many years and in the next couple of seasons, winning baseball in the Steel City may become a reality.

Pittsburgh has taken two of three from the Cardinals and Cubs to start the season, beating St. Louis 3-1 on Wednesday.

The main reason the Pirates are sitting at 4-2 is they have a legit top of their lineup.

Pittsburgh's top four hitters -- Jose Tabata, Neil Walker, Andrew McCutchen and Lyle Overbay -- are hitting a combined .356/.434/.621 in the team's first games. Walker and McCutchen each have a pair of homers, with Overbay adding another.

That's not a pace the team can sustain, but McCutchen is on the edge of stardom, while Walker and Tabata are good, emerging players. Overbay is the type of player with better results than reputation. A career .274/.358/.447 hitter, he's unlikely to continue hitting .304/..385/.522, but shouldn't fall too far.

Walker's performance as a rookie last season was overshadowed by an historic first-year class, but he still put up a very good season, hitting .296/.349/.462 with 12 home runs in 110 games for his hometown team.  Tabata's prospect status took a hit in the last couple of years, but he too put up solid rookie numbers in 2010, hitting .299/.346/.400 in 102 games.

Add in Pedro Alvarez, Ryan Doumit and Garrett Jones, and there's the making of an effective offense.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Pirates are hitting .271/.333/.409 with six home runs. With that, the Pirates' starters have a 2.52 ERA through six games. That's unlikely to continue in a rotation of Kevin Correia, Paul Maholm, James McDonald, Charlie Morton and Ross Ohlendorf they've pitched well, with Correia picking up two wins so far this season and have made the Pirates anything but a pushover early.

Joel Hanrahan has been the rare closer in the big leagues to convert all of his save chances, recording the save in all four of the PIrates' wins this season.

It should also be noted that all six games have been on the road, where Pittsburgh had an MLB-worst 17-64 record a year ago.

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