There are two ways that you could look at the Pittsburgh Pirates 2012 season. You could look at the way the team contended for about 120 games, the way that Andrew McCutchen rose his level of play to MVP-level, the way that Neil Walker established himself as a consistent big league producer and Pedro Alvarez finally started to tap into his power potential, and conclude that maybe things are finally headed in the right direction at PNC Park. Or you could look at the way the team completely fell apart in the season’s final month (they finished 79-83 after starting the year 63-47), the way the pitching staff fell apart and the supporting cast, save a few players, failed to step up, and you could say, “Same old Pirates.” So who are the Pittsburgh Pirates going forward? Are they headed for a run of contention with McCutchen and Alvarez and Walker and pitching prospects like Gerrit Cole leading the way, or are they doomed to keep on falling short?
BULLPEN – The Pirates traded Joel Hanrahan to Boston over the winter, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the Pirates’ bullpen will be terrible. Jason Grilli is expected to close in Hanrahan’s absence and he’s blossomed with the Pirates. Last year, he struck out 37% of hitters that he faced (90 in just 58 2/3 innings) to go with his 2.91 ERA. Behind him the Pirates are hoping that Mark Melancon rebounds from his tough season in Boston. That seems like a decent bet, given that many of his struggles came early in the year and that his groundball rate, strikeout numbers and walk numbers were still strong despite his bad season. After Grilli and Melancon, the Pirates will rely mostly on younger pitchers. Jared Hughes, who relies quite a bit on a heavy fastball to induce groundballs, and Tony Watson, who had a strong-if-somewhat-up-and-down rookie season as the Pirates main left-handed reliever, should both be back to battle for bullpen spots. A trio of minor league righties, Bryan Morris, Duke Welker and Victor Black will all fight for spots in the bullpen. Given the number of unproven pitchers in the bullpen there’s a lot of volatility and it’s easy to see how it could turn out badly, but if even one or two of the young pitchers pan out, Grilli repeats his 2012 performance, and Melancon returns to form, the Pirates’ bullpen could arguably be better than it was last year.
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