The Pittsburgh Pirates teased the baseball world last season when they went into the All-Star break holding a one-game lead atop the National League Central.
Forget the fact that the Pirates actually looked like they were going to post their first winning season since 1992 when it was seven games above .500 at one point, this was a squad that resembled a playoff team, holding a sole possession of first place in the division as late as July 19.
But, everything changed on the night of July 26 when one of the worst calls you'll ever see caused them to lose a six-hour, 19-inning marathon in Atlanta.
On the surface it was just another loss, but the Pirates went onto lose 10 of their next 11 games and won only 18 of the season's final 59 games, extending the longest North American professional sports record for losing seasons.
So, what was once a feel-good story turned into yet another typical baseball season in the Steel City, as the Pirates stumbled their way to a 72-90 finish.
The 72 wins were the most for the team since 2003, so that's something to build on right?
Aside from all the losing in the second half, there were some glimmers of hope. Like outfielder Andrew McCutchen, who took a giant leap and took his place as one of the best young players in the game. However, third baseman Pedro Alvarez took a huge step back, but should he rebound this year and start to realize that vast potential there may actually be some meaningful baseball in Pittsburgh this year.
Below we take a capsule look at the 2012 edition of the Pittsburgh Pirates, with a personnel evaluation and prognosis included therein:
2011 FINISH (72-90) - Fourth Place (NL Central)
KEY OFFSEASON ADDITIONS: A.J. Burnett (RHP), Erik Bedard (LHP), Nate McLouth (OF), Clint Barmes (INF), Casey McGehee (INF), Juan Cruz (RHP), Rod Barajas (C)
KEY OFFSEASON SUBTRACTIONS: Derrek Lee (1B), Paul Maholm (LHP), Xavier Paul (OF), Ronny Cedeno (INF), Ryan Doumit (C), Ryan Ludwick (OF), Chris Snyder (C)
PROJECTED LINEUP: Alex Presley (LF); Jose Tabata (RF); Andrew McCutchen (CF); Neil Walker (2B); Garrett Jones (1B); Rod Barajas (C); Pedro Alvarez (3B); Clint Barmes (SS)
PROJECTED ROTATION: A.J. Burnett (RHP); James McDonald (RHP); Erik Bedard (LHP); Kevin Correia (RHP); Charlie Morton (RHP)
PROJECTED CLOSER: Joel Hanrahan (RHP)
MANAGER: Clint Hurdle
JUST HOW GOOD CAN ANDREW MCCUTCHEN BE?
There have been a lot of things to criticize the Pirates for over the past two decades. But, the team may have made the best decision it has in sometime this winter when they locked up burgeoning superstar Andrew McCutchen with a six- year, $51.5 million deal.
McCutchen is coming off his best season in three years with the Pirates, as he batted .259 and led the team with 23 homers, 89 runs batted in and 23 stolen bases in 2011. He also earned his first All-Star Game selection.
The long-term deal marks a change for the once-proud Pittsburgh organization. The Pirates have struggled to keep their talented prospects in recent years, having traded away such blossoming stars as Aramis Ramirez, Jason Bay and Nate McLouth, who is back with the team this year in a bench role.
"We have said from the very beginning that our plan is to acquire high impact talent, then retain and build on that talent to bring a winning organization to our fans," said Pirates chairman Bob Nutting. "I believe this agreement speaks not only to that commitment, but also to Andrew's belief in the positive direction of our club."
IS THIS THE YEAR PEDRO ALAVAREZ BREAKS OUT?
Now, McCutchen has arrived. The Pirates are still waiting for third baseman Pedro Alvarez to join him as a perennial All-Star candidate.
Selected with the second overall pick in the 2008 draft, Alvarez showed flashes of brilliance in 2010, belting 16 home runs and knocking in 64 runs in 95 games. However, injuries never really allowed him to get going last season and he struggled in 74 games, batting a mere .191 with four home runs and 19 RBI. Alvarez struck out about once in every three at-bats, while walking just 24 times.
What was even more alarming, though, was the fact that he didn't exactly dominate after a demotion to Triple-A Indianapolis (.256, five homers, 19 RBI).
"I think it was just one of those things that was a learning adjustment," Alvarez told the team's website this winter. "Hopefully, it's one of those things that if you deal with it early in your career, you don't have to deal with it again. For now, I think it's just a matter of how I go about it, what I can take out of it and move on from there."
When a franchise has suffered through a North American professional sports record 19 consecutive losing seasons, it gets increasingly difficult to exercise patience. However, that should remain the approach with Alvarez, although the late 2010 version of him had best re-emerge soon.
A.J. BURNETT, REALLY?
When the New York Yankees were shopping right-hander A.J. Burnett the Pirates didn't exactly spring to mind as a potential suitor. But, Burnett does have talent and you had to figure the Yankees were going to eat a ton of money in any deal.
So, if you struck gold with Burnett and he pitched the way some think he is capable of, you would be getting him on the cheap.
Welcome to Pittsburgh, A.J.
Burnett is a former 18-game winner and some think he may get close to that form being away from the bright lights of New York, where, although he did help the Yankees to a World Series title in 2009, produced two of the worst statistical seasons ever by a Yankees starter. After a miserable 2010 that saw him go 10-15 with a 5.26 ERA, Burnett was a little better last season, posting an 11-11 ledger to go along with a 5.15 ERA.
Either way he'll eventually be the No. 1 pitcher in a rotation that should also include James McDonald, Charlie Morton, Erik Bedard, Jeff Karstens or Kevin Correia.
Things, though, haven't gotten off to the best start for Burnett, who will miss the first month or so after fracturing an orbital bone in his right eye after fouling off a pitch from a machine bounced off his bat and struck his face between the eye and temple.
You can't make this stuff up.
X FACTOR: JAMES MCDONALD: Now that Burnett is going to start the year on the disabled list and Paul Maholm left as a free agent for Chicago, more responsibility will be thrust upon right-hander James McDonald. The 27-year- old flamethrower was a bit of a disappointment last season for the Pirates, going just 9-9 with a 4.21 ERA and 142 strikeouts in 171 innings. This spring he has tweaked his delivery a bit with the hope that helps last longer in games, something he struggled with last season, as he went seven full innings just twice last season.
What can you say about the Pirates? Last year they were a feel-good story in the first half and then it all fell apart. If those first few months did anything, it showed that there is some talent on this roster. General manager Neal Huntington has preached baby steps and that is the right approach. Before they can even start thinking about contending for a division title they have to get back to .500, which would be a huge accomplishment. Is that a realistic goal this season? It absolutely should be.