Spring Training 2011 Question Of The Day: Pittsburgh Pirates

BRADENTON, FL - MARCH 02: Outfielder Andrew McCutchen #22 of the Pittsburgh Pirates fouls off a pitch against the Minnesota Twins during a Grapefruit League Spring Training Game at McKechnie Field on March 2, 2011 in Bradenton, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)

This year the Pittsburgh Pirates are going to run their streak of losing seasons to 19, which would give them the record if they didn't have it already. If they don't make it 20 next season and 21 after that, it will be thanks to a talented quartet of young hitters led by Andrew McCutchen.

There are questions surrounding all 30 MLB teams during Spring Training, and Rob Neyer intends to answer them with his 30-part Question of the Day series. Today, he takes a look at the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Say what you want about them, but the 2011 Pirates are not uninteresting.

Sure, they lost 105 games last year.

Sure, they haven't enjoyed a winning season since 1992.

Actually, those cold facts make the Pirates sort of interesting, all by themselves. It's possible that I missed somebody, but I believe the Pirates' streak of 18 losing seasons is the most in major-league history. They would be more interesting if they were going for the record this season, but their drive for 20 is sort of interesting, right?

Probably not to their fans. Probably not so much at all.

And the stark truth is that the Pirates are exceptionally likely to run that streak to 19 (and yes, probably 20). 

They're not going to lose 105 games again. Probably not even 100. But considering their starting pitching, there's room for only so much improvement.

Still, there is this ... Fully one-half of the Pirates' Opening Day lineup should be interesting.

No, I'm not talking about catcher Chris Snyder, first baseman Lyle Overbay, shortstop Ronny Cedeno and right fielder Garrett Jones. That quartet is distinctly uninteresting (aside from the fact that they all rank among the thousand-some greatest baseball players in the universe).

The other four, though?

Second baseman Neil Walker, who's 25, came out of almost nowhere to slug .462 in 110 games and finish fifth in Rookie of the Year balloting.

Third baseman Pedro Alvarez slugged .461 in 95 games. Alvarez didn't come out of nowhere; in 2008, he was the second player selected in the amateur draft. In those same 95 games, he struck out 119 times. 

Left fielder Jose Tabata didn't hit as well as Walker or Alvarez in his 102 games, but at 22 he wasn't really expected to. Routinely rated by Baseball America as one of the better hitting prospects in the game before the Pirates acquired him from the Yankees, Tabata's stock has fallen some because his power hasn't yet developed. But he held his own after joining the big club last summer, and he's obviously young enough to improve.

Speaking of which, center fielder Andrew McCutchen is younger than Walker and just slightly older than Alvarez. But McCutchen's got a full season on those guys (and Tabata, too). McCutchen's also got two incredibly similar seasons in his ledger, with .286 batting averages and .365 on-base percentages in both. His numbers have been perfectly fine ... but the Pirates need big stars and McCutchen's their best bet but he's not a big star yet.

The Big Question about this team is this: Will at least three of Pittsburgh's young hitters post bigger numbers in 2011 than 2010? And will they just keep moving up for another two or three seasons?

It's hard to imagine McCutchen duplicating his numbers again, and given his youth he seems unlikely to postpoorer numbers ... which leaves just one likelihood: a step up.

Tabata was tagged as a hot prospect early on, when he more than held his own in professional baseball at the ages of 17 and 18. He's not been quite as impressive since, but Tabata has always been one of the youngest players in his leagues, and that fact alone says good things about his future.

Alvarez was't particularly impressive last season. Not with 119 strikeouts in 95 games. His pedigree is outstanding, though. In 2009, his first pro season, Alvarez posted a .288/.378/.535 in Classes A and AA. In 2010, he batted .277/.363/.533 in Triple-A before his promotion to the majors. Sure, the strikeouts are going to limit Alvarez's batting averages and the Pirates might have a younger version of Mark Reynolds. But that's something like the lower limit, and Alvarez's lack of professional experience might mean he's got plenty of room for growth.

Walker's the least likely among these four to become a star. Last season was Walker's seventh as a professional. In the previous six, he'd never posted an OPS higher than 784. In two extended Triple-A looks, he'd compiled a sub-.300 on-base percentage.

Then, 2010. First Walker destroyed International League pitchers for seven weeks, then did good work in the National League for four months. Which means more? Those six previous seasons, or the most recent that includes real success in the majors?

There aren't any guarantees in this game. But three or four good hitters entering their peak seasons would give all those poor, downtrodden Pirates fans at least some reason to dream about .500. Just a little bit.

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