Be honest, the night before the 2011 Pittsburgh Pirates opened their season against the Chicago Cubs, you predicted another 90-100 loss season where the Pirates would be 20 games out of first by mid-June.
It's OK, I did the same thing.
While the Pirates did eventually lose 90 games last season, they were in first place as late as mid-July, something completely unpredictable. Thanks to excellent pitching from Kevin Correia, Jeff Karstens and Charlie Morton, the Pirates were riding high for over half the season.
Then the pitching collapsed and so did the team, falling out of first place faster than an average major league fastball. As the team began to free fall, the hope began to die down and the talk of Steelers training camp started to overtake the conversations of average Pittsburghers.
What about this year?
I have no single prediction, to be honest. My mind is split on how the Pirates will perform this year which is new from year's past where the prediction was pretty simple: "this team is going to be bad." May I present you with optimistic Jon and pessimistic Jon:
The pitching fell apart last season because Charlie Morton, James McDonald, and Jeff Karstens wore down. They were not used to throwing that many innings. Karstens was a career long-reliever who was thrusted into the rotation after an injury to Ross Ohlendorf. Now, with those three pitchers coming back in better condition, along with the acquisitions of AJ Burnett and Erik Bedard, the rotation has a chance to lead the way again!
And don't forget about Andrew McCutchen, Alex Presley, Jose Tabata and Neil Walker. After signing a long term deal, McCutchen is ready to take a bigger step towards being a superstar. Tabata can be a solid fringe-.300 hitter, Alex Presley is a great on-base guy, and Neil Walker hits well with runners on base. The team will get more production at shortstop and catcher with the additions of Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas.
Also, the Pirates are now playing in an NL Central division with Albert Pujols or Prince Fielder. That, alone, should make it a little easier for them to win games within the division.
The pitching fell apart last season mainly because the pitchers finally came back to earth. Jeff Karstens was nothing more than a 5.00+ ERA pitcher who was more lucky than good. He gave up 23 home runs of which 21 were solo shots. Karstens also had a high strand rate, especially in June when he kept 97% of the base runners from scoring. Morton showed signs of improvement but he still hasn't been able to get left handed hitters out, AJ Burnett has been terrible the last two seasons, and Erik Bedard can't stay healthy.
While Andrew McCutchen is a budding superstar, the lack of power in this lineup (thanks Alvarez) will force pitchers to pitch around him to get to Neil Walker who struck out 112 times last season. Jose Tabata cannot stay healthy, Alex Presley has zero power and is still a question mark now that teams have scouting reports on him, and the bottom half of the lineup is a joke.
The division is not quite as competitive with Pujols and Fielder leaving, but the Pirates still not as good as the Cardinals or Brewers. The Cardinals still have Matt Holliday, David Freese, Lance Berkman and Carlos Beltran in their lineup. The Brewers still have Ryan Braun, Rickie Weeks, Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke on their team.
This team is completely unpredictable this season. Fans have no idea who the real Pittsburgh Pirates are which makes this season a lot more fun heading in. By July will it be as fun as last year? It is impossible to say. There have been so many changes both inside and outside the organization. If I had to narrow it down to one idea it is this: the 2012 Pittsburgh Pirates upgraded their staff with Burnett and Bedard, however McDonald, Karstens and Morton will regress slightly from last season. The offense is solely based on how well Pedro Alvarez hits, and the departures of All-Star players within the division just gives Pittsburgh a better chance at winning in Milwaukee.
Final Prediction: 74-88