By Joe Starkey, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Thursday, April 5, 2012
Pittsburgh Pirates have a practice session at PNC Park, Wednesday, April 4, 2012, in preparation for Thursday's opening day baseball game against the Philadelphia Phillies in Pittsburgh. (AP)
Clint Hurdle, the second-year manager, insists his team is "better" than it was last season in all facets offense, defense, starting pitching, bullpen and bench.
Neal Huntington, the fifth-year general manager, says the club is ready to make "another big step."
Bob Nutting, the sixth-year principal owner, speaks of a different "expectation level."
What's it all mean in terms of won-loss record for the 2012 Pirates?
Well, nobody wants to get that specific. Which is just as well. The last time a Pirates official pegged a win total, it was then-owner Kevin McClatchy predicting 90 wins in 2000.
He was only 21 off.
Certainly, nobody wants to mention the magic number, even if we all know what it is.
That's right, 82 wins. A 10-game improvement on last season.
A complicated sabermetrics calculation tells me 82 is one more than 81 a nice number upon which much of the fan base is fixated. After all, an 81-81 record would snap their team's pesky 19-year losing skid.
Problem is, it would not prevent the streak of non-winning seasons from reaching 20. Eighty-one wins would therefore be annoying, confusing and highly inconvenient.
It's 82 or bust.
Nobody's saying 82 wins should be a stated goal at Pirates headquarters. That would be embarrassing. But the rest of us know the importance of 82 and until the Pirates post a winning season, that 500-pound gorilla will have a prominent place in their clubhouse.
Is this the year?
I doubt it. But a bad division and better arms give the Pirates hope. There is always hope, especially on Opening Day.
I asked MLB analyst Eric Byrnes to put a percentage on the Pirates winning the NL Central. He did not hesitate.
"None. Zero. Zilch," he said.
Really, no chance? Byrnes amended the figure to 4 percent, which sounds about right. His analysis was spot-on.
"This isn't a bad team," he said. "I don't think it's a team that will lose 100 games. But this isn't a good team. They have a bunch of middle-of-the-road guys."
Good thing the Pirates don't listen to voices outside of their clubhouse especially the sabermetrics crowd. Consider ESPN's "fantasy projection" for new shortstop Clint Barmes:
Barmes is one of the worst regulars in baseball ... his .297 on-base percentage the past six seasons combined is ninth-worst among players with 2,000-plus plate appearances.
Coming off one of the worst seasons of any regular his .223 batting average was fourth-worst and .626 OPS third-worst among qualified hitters.
Geez. How about Pedro Alvarez?
Among players who saw at least 200 curveballs and sliders combined last season, his .072 batting average against them was a major-league worst.
Alvarez hit .072 on breaking balls? Good thing he went to winter ball to work on that. Oh wait ...
The division has gotten worse, no doubt, but I'm guessing you wouldn't mind a middle of the order featuring Ryan "Real Story" Braun, Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart. That's Milwaukee's. Or maybe a 2-3-4-5 combo of Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, Lance Berkman and David Freese, like they have in St. Louis.
How about a rotation that kicks off with Johnny Cueto and Mat Latos (Cincinnati), or maybe Yovani Gallardo, Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum (Milwaukee)?
Circle those games against the rebuilding Cubs and pitiful Astros all you like, just know this: Somebody's circling the Pirates, too.
Injuries obviously could be an equalizer. Alvarez could be one, too and I'm expecting Andrew McCutchen to leap toward MVP-like numbers but the biggest key, as always, is starting pitching.
Incredible pitching is why the Pirates were in first place in late July. Horrific pitching is why they crumbled.
Erik Bedard, A.J. Burnett and Charlie Morton have top-starter stuff without top-starter resumes. If they stay healthy, and if some combination of Jeff Karstens, Kevin Correia and James McDonald is respectable, all bets are off.
I'm betting on 72-90 again but there's always hope. Especially on Opening Day.