By John Franco
With the season coming to an end on Wednesday, the start of the off-season will kick off several months of hand-wringing, pontificating and overthinking every aspect of the 2011 Pirates. There will be plenty of time for in-depth analysis, and we’ll be bringing plenty of it here. For today, I want to post a quick reflection on the season in the form of a top 5 list. Here are the top five developments that will help shape the team going forward.
Honorable Mention: Jeff Karstens. Karstens had a great year, finishing 9-9 with a 3.38 ERA. I’m only giving him honorable mention because I’m not sure he can repeat this year, but it was a great run and he’s earned the opportunity to try.
Number 5: Andrew McCutchen. Cutch really didn’t end up with a superstar season, but he finished over 5 WAR, broke 20 home runs, improved his defense and his defensive metrics in center field, and played in 158 games. His batting average dipped and his strikeout rate increased, but he still drew plenty of walks and adjusted well to hitting in the middle of the order more often. McCutchen is on this list because he continues to embrace his role as the face of the franchise, something the team sorely needs. The Pirates really need to get him signed to an extension before his contract status becomes a distraction.
Number 4: Josh Bell. Bell hasn’t done anything in the minor leagues yet, but his signing was a shock to Pirate fans and analysts alike. The Pirates showed their commitment to building through the draft and spending a lot of money to do it, and they added an impact bat to a system that really needed one. Any time you have the industry saying “Wow, I can’t believe the Pirates did X” and doing X is a good thing, you have to be happy.
Number 3: Starling Marte. Marte arrived on the prospect scene in 2010, hitting .315 at High-A and showing great speed and defensive tools. He had a breakout year in 2011, hitting .332/.370/.500 as a 22-year old at Double-A. He still doesn’t take many walks (22 in 129 games this year) but it looks like his bat can make him a major league regular with the upside to be a star. The Pirates inexplicably chose Robbie Grossman as their minor league player of the year, but I’d like to see him succeed at Double-A before putting him ahead of Marte.
Number 2: Joel Hanrahan.The Hammer gave the Pirates their first legitimate shutdown closer since… well, there was that one Goose Gossage season… Hanrahan saved 40 games with a 1.83 ERA, posting a K:BB rate of almost 4:1 and a groundball rate of more than 50%. In other words, the ERA was a little lucky, but he showed the skills to repeat it. He’ll get a hefty raise in arbitration this year, but if the Pirates want to trade him, they should get a lot of loot in return.
Number 1: The Fans. The Pirates drew 1.94 million fans in 2011, an increase of about 330,000 over 2010. They did it the hard way: by winning baseball games and getting people talking about the team. Yes, the team inevitably fell apart and the NFL settled their lockout so people could talk about the Steelers again, but I think the Pirates’ first half will have a lasting impact. The team was a topic of discussion around the water cooler for the first time in a long time, and for a lot of fans, they’ll think of 2011 as “the last time the team was interesting” – where they might have thought of 1997 before this year. 1997!!!
A season that ended with Pedro Alvarez striking out looking in Milwaukee could hardly have a more fitting end, but let’s take some time to remember the positives before spending the winter dissecting the negatives.