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Analysis: Which way will Pirates swing?

| Sunday, March 25, 2012

BRADENTON, Fla. -- In 11 days, the Pittsburgh Baseball Club will begin its 126th season looking to end a losing streak of 19 years by winning at least 81 games and maybe a few more to become one of the National League's five playoff teams for the first time since ... oh, who can count anymore?

Here are five reasons these Pirates could be winners again:

5. A more level field

No player in the past decade tormented the Pirates quite like Albert Pujols, with a .365 average and 48 home runs.

He'll play in Anaheim this summer.

Prince Fielder, too, is gone from Milwaukee to Detroit.

Those two departures should knock down World Series champion St. Louis and NL Central Division champion Milwaukee by at least a notch or two. The Pirates were 7-9 against the Cardinals last season and, of course, were smacked around by the Brewers all summer long at 3-12.

So anything helps, right?

"I don't know," starter Charlie Morton said. "I wouldn't say that just because Albert and Prince are gone those teams will struggle. But, yeah, things will be a little different."

It also won't hurt that the Pirates were 10-5 against Cincinnati, the team most are picking to be the class of the division.

4. Contact at the top

The Pirates don't have much in the way of power or on-base proficiency, but they've got plenty of contact in the top four spots of the order with Alex Presley, Jose Tabata, Andrew McCutchen and Neil Walker. Among them, they have a cumulative .280 career batting average.

If this offense does damage, it will have to be right there.

"We have guys who can hit, and we just need to get on base for each other, keep moving each other," Tabata said.

Also, while few fences are cleared among these four, the gaps stay busy: They average an extra-base hit every 11 at-bats.

3. Barriers are broken

It's an intangible, but it shouldn't be lightly dismissed that the Pirates "broke through a lot of barriers," as Clint Hurdle often puts it, in the first four months of 2011. If the team somehow ascends to first place, it probably won't make the front pages or top stories of national outlets, and it probably won't earn testimonials from Michael Keaton.

The circus came and went.

"For sure, I don't think we'll sneak up on anybody anymore," Walker said. "But it also helps us, I think, in that we'll be better prepared for when the tough times come. We'll know how to handle things better and avoid that long losing streak."

2. The pitching

Any analysis of what went right -- and wrong -- in 2011 begins and ends with the pitching. When the Pirates ranked among the league's best in pitching, they were in first place. Once they fell off, the entire team plunged off a cliff.

The rotation will be the same, aside from A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard essentially taking the place of Paul Maholm and someone else down the road. That should represent an upgrade, especially in the weak area of strikeouts.

The bullpen will be mostly the same, too, still anchored by 40-save Joel Hanrahan, still deep and versatile in front of him.

"There are a lot of good arms here," reliever Chris Resop said. "If the starters can get us six or seven -- and we know they can -- we've got the guys to take it home."

1. Cutch is good

Rare is the team in any sport that takes a major step forward without an individual doing likewise. No one has a better shot at that than McCutchen.

He was a first-time All-Star in 2011, but it's hard to cite last year as a breakthrough when his average dropped from .286 to .259 even as his home runs increased from 16 to 23 and his on-base percentage stayed steady. He can be better.

With that $51.5 million contract, the Pirates clearly are counting on that to be the case.

So is McCutchen, apparently.

"I believe in myself," he said. "I know what's coming. I've just got to keep working hard."

If McCutchen elevates his performance to become the Pirates' first truly feared hitter since Brian Giles, it will make the biggest impact of all. The entire lineup takes on a different feel.

And here are five reasons the losing streak will extend to 20 years:

5. How the bottom half lives

The Pirates' expected 5-8 in the order has Garrett Jones coming off a .243 season, Rod Barajas coming off .230, Pedro Alvarez coming off .191 and Clint Barmes coming off .244. Platoon with Jones is Casey McGehee, coming off .223.


There isn't much on-base or speed component there, either, so all concerned will have to fare far better than 2011.

"Look at any good team, and all their guys produce. They're all tough outs," Barmes said. "I think we have that, no matter what lineup you pick out of this room. We'll wear down the other team's pitcher, work a collective approach."

4. Base and ball disconnect

Hurdle's model for the Pirates, now and into the future, is that of Hall of Fame manager Whitey Herzog: Get a guy on base, get him over, get him home.

It's a fine fit for the post-steroids era, but the roster isn't exactly a great match. There's some speed at the top, but Presley, Tabata and McCutchen are far from great baserunners or stealers. And below them is a below-average set of runners.

This spring, like the last one, has seen Hurdle push his players for extra bases. It's a commendable concept in that it encourages aggressiveness, but it's mostly resulted in ugly outs.

"We understand that'll happen," Hurdle said. "But this is who we are. We're going to run."

3. Rotation riddles

Burnett, Bedard, Kevin Correia and even Jeff Karstens now can be considered known commodities. Not too many surprises will come. But the same can't be said for Morton and James McDonald, the wild cards in the rotation.

Management is of the mind that both can reach some higher tier, each blessed with 95-mph arms and lively breaking stuff. Morton took a step forward with a staff-high inning count and 3.83 ERA. McDonald got better as the season went along.

The swing with these two variables could be a violent one, especially with McDonald struggling with command all spring before seven smooth innings Saturday.

"I'll be fine," he said. "It's coming."

2. Pedro or K-dro?

Plain and simple, Alvarez needs to produce for the Pirates to have any semblance of power in the heart of the order. If not, it's Whitey Herzog ball without the legs.

So far this spring, there's been a lot more bust than boom.

"We're working with Pedro, and we'll continue working with Pedro," Hurdle said. "We've seen some good things, and we need to bring those out."

1. The seven letters stitched across their chest

Until they're not the Pirates anymore, they'll still be the Pirates.

That's not to suggest that a wealth of mismanagement isn't to blame for two decades of losing, but some lousy luck has to happen, too.

How else to explain Jerry Meals?

Or Burnett breaking his orbital this spring on a foul bunt?

Jeff Banister, the heart-and-soul bench coach who is the organization's most tenured member at 27 years, expressed hope that this will be the year.

"You know what I like most about this clubhouse?" Banister said. "The talent. It's great that it's a good bunch of guys. It's great that we're together. But the best part is the talent."

The determination, too, he added.

"With what happened to us in late July and August, we know what we need to finish. We got punched in the mouth. We tasted our own blood. No one likes it, and we'd like to get rid of it."

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