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The Duke previews the Pirates

By Dave Golebiewski
On March 31, 2011

  • Pirates outfielder Jose Tabata hit .299, scored 61 runs and stole 19 bases in 102 games last year. AP Photo

In 2010, the Pirates lost 105 games, fired (and then re-hired) a racing pierogi who bad-mouthed the team on Facebook and more or less served as the opening act for post-game fireworks shows and rock concerts. Look on the bright side: it can't get any worse under new manager Clint Hurdle, right? (Right?!)

With Opening Day fast approaching, here are some Pirates storylines to ponder while you wait for Zambelli explosions or The Steve Miller Band.

Pittsburgh's pitiful defense

Last season, the Pirates played defense like they were wearing cinder blocks instead of cleats. Pittsburgh ranked dead last in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, which measures the percentage of balls put in play that are converted into outs. Compounding matters, the Bucs' finesse pitching staff couldn't strike anybody out – they placed last in the National League in K's.

Pitchers who put lots of balls in play, and iron-gloved defenders who can't corral those grounders, fly balls and liners – that's a recipe for "Here We Go Steelers!" chants by the third inning at PNC Park.

The Pirates hope that Neil Walker, who played mostly catcher and third base in the minors, will show better range as he gains more experience at second base. Free agent signee Lyle Overbay should be an improvement at first base, and a full year of Jose Tabata in left field will help matters, too.

Will the Bucs sign Andrew McCutchen to a long-term deal?

One of the Pirates' few player development success stories, McCutchen is the five-tool face of the franchise. During his first two years in the majors, McCutchen posted a .824 on-base plus slugging percentage (20 percent better than the major league average) while making use of his sizzling speed in center field and on the bases. He even has his own action figure (seriously -- buy a ticket for the April 23 game and pick one up at the gate). The 24-year-old is the sort of talent that the Pirates must develop from within, because they simply don't have the cash to compete for superstars on the free agent market.

McCutchen won't be a free agent until after the 2015 season, but the Pirates need to be proactive and lock him up now because he could be eligible for salary arbitration after this season.

In arbitration, both team and player submit a desired salary figure for the upcoming season based on that player's performance and what similar players earned through the process in years past. While still not getting as much scratch through arbitration as they would in free agency, players' paychecks start getting fatter.

Rather than potentially watching McCutchen's salary soar through arbitration each winter, the Pirates should try to sign their star to a long-term deal right now. Doing so would give the club cost certainty. Also, these types of deals typically buy out a few years of free agency, meaning McCutchen would be in a Pirates uniform past 2015.  

Can the youngsters provide offensive punch?

The Pirates' offense scored the fewest runs in the NL last year, and it wasn't even close. If that's going to change in 2011, the Bucs need young guns Pedro Alvarez, Tabata and Walker to join McCutchen as hitters who elicit fear, not laughter, from opposing pitchers.

Alvarez has the power to send boaters on the Allegheny River fleeing for cover. Tabata doesn't have that thump, but he has upside considering that he's the same age as most seniors on campus, 21. While Walker needs to lay off junk pitches, the pride of Pine-Richland has a line-drive stroke. The Pirates won't boast a great lineup this year, but at least they shouldn't look like they're swinging balsa wood bats.

Joe Beimel's back!

The Duquesne grad returns to Pittsburgh after a seven-year whirlwind that took him through Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Los Angeles, Washington and Colorado. Originally drafted off the Bluff by the Bucs in the 18th round of the 1998 draft, Beimel is what the baseball community calls a LOOGY – a left-handed one-out guy.

Basically, the lefty relief pitcher's job is to make fellow southpaws look like they just staggered in to the batter's box after a South Side bender. And, despite possessing a fastball that only reaches the high 80s with a strong gust of wind at his back, Beimel is an accomplished LOOGY. In 2010, Beimel held lefty batters to a .275 on-base percentage, compared to the .317 NL average for port-side pitchers against left-handed hitters.

Beimel has acquired a cult following. Need a break from class work? Go watch "The Ballad of the Legend of Joe Beimel," a fan's ode to the pitcher, on YouTube. Here's a sample:

Who is Joe Beimel? / He's a mountain man with a vicious left hand. / If you're leading off, you're gonna wish you ran.

A vicious left hand, indeed. Take pride in your LOOGY, Duquesne.

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