PITTSBURGH - APRIL 07: General view of PNC Park during the Opening Day ceremonies before the game between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Colorado Rockies on April 7, 2011 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
The Mets travel to Pittsburgh to open up a three game set with the Pirates and that means it's time for the Amazin' Avenue Five For Five series preview. Despite a 19-22 record, the Pirates are just three games behind the first place Cardinals in the weaker NL Central division. I spoke with Charlie Wilmoth, manager of SB Nation's Pirates blog Bucs Dugout and here's what he had to say about the team:
SS: The Pirates sit at 19-22 thus far and last season, they tasted contention for much of the first half before fading during the summer months. What are your expectations for this season and the near future?
CW: I expect them to win 70 to 75 games, which is about what they're on pace for. The future after this season is murkier, because there isn't a lot of help on the way above the Class A+ level. The Pirates really should have a better farm system, given how early they typically draft and how much they've spent on amateur talent in the past four years.
SS: Early on this year, the Pirates have had a tough time scoring runs, aside from the always-excellent Andrew McCutchen. Do you see the team improving their offensive output over the rest of the year? Are there any minor leaguers or guys not currently on the roster who could help out soon?
CW: The answer to your last question is no, unless you count minor-league veterans like Jake Fox or Jose Morales. I do see the offense improving, due simply to regression to the mean, but it will probably still be terrible overall.
SS: The pitching has been excellent early on for the Pirates and I’m assuming that the development of James McDonald, who has a 2.51 FIP through eight starts, has played a large role in this. What has he done to improve from last season and do you think he can continue to throw like he has?
CW: His breaking ball has just been toxic this year, and he's getting a bunch of swings and misses with it. He's also reigned in his walks. His improvements have allowed him to work deeper into starts. He's also allowing homers at an unsustainably low rate, but I think a lot of his improvements are legitimate. He's in his age-27 season, the perfect time for a breakout.
SS: Pedro Alvarez was touted as an up and coming star when the Pirates drafted him #2 overall back in 2008 but things have gone sour for him after he put together a nice rookie year in 2010. What has most contributed to his struggles and how do you feel about his chances to "put it all together" soon?
CW: You never know, and the ultra-hot streak he was on a few weeks ago (he hit six of his seven homers so far this year in a two-week period in late April and early May) suggests there's something there. Unfortunately, he strikes out far too often, and he's incredibly streaky, to the point where he has extended stretches where he doesn't even look like he could hit Class AA pitchers, let alone major-leaguers. Anecdotally, I can't recall the last time I saw a hitter who looked as bad as he did down the stretch last season, and in Spring Training, and in the first couple weeks of this season. There's still hope, but I'm not incredibly optimistic -- if he turned out to be Mark Reynolds, I'd settle for that.
SS: GM Neal Huntington is now in his fifth season with the Pirates and from an outsider’s perspective, the organization seems to be in better hands than it was in the past. Despite this, the on-field results are still lacking and after five years, you’d imagine that the tree would "bear some more fruit". How would you assess the job Huntington’s crew has done to this point and are you confident this regime can get the job done?
CW: I think your first sentence sums it up pretty well. Huntington has done a lot of good things, and the outline of what he's tried to do -- trade veterans, build through the draft -- has been exactly right. Unfortunately, the results just aren't there. I wouldn't necessarily expect them at the major-league level at this point, but the farm system isn't incredibly exciting either after top-two overall picks Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon and a handful of wild cards in the low minors. Huntington and his team appear to have done a poor job getting talent outside the first round of the draft, despite spending tons of money. It's been four and a half years, and I don't see any obvious time frame for contention on the horizon. Huntington is a bright, competent guy, and I don't think his shortcomings would be particularly noticeable if he were the GM of any number of other teams, but being the Bucs' GM is a very, very difficult job. You have to be outstanding, and I'm not sure Huntington is.
Thanks again to Charlie Wilmoth for graciously taking the time to give us some insight into the Pirates. Tonight's game starts at 7:05 PM from Pittsburgh and the pitching matchup should be a good one, as Johan Santana takes on Erik Bedard.