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Burning Fantasy Baseball Questions: Pittsburgh Pirates

By Tim Heaney
Edited by Nicholas Minnix

KFFL answers important fantasy baseball questions about each Major League Baseball team as spring training approaches. What must fantasy baseball players know about the Pittsburgh Pirates?

How strong is Andrew McCutchen's case for the first round?

Pittsburgh Pirates SP A.J. Burnett
Burnett fits in 'Burgh

It slightly resembles Mike Trout's power-speed combo. If you take him in the top three or so, you're pushing it. He's more attractive toward the stanza's middle and especially so near the end. Often in early mocks, he's going as a top-five grab, though, which may backfire.

His career highs in homers (31) and batting average (.327) came at the same time. It's bold to think both will improve on or hover near each level. The clip is the likelier point of sacrifice because he swung more often and took fewer walks, which contributed to his contact rate collapse. The taters will come back a bit, too, because he actually hit fewer flies.

The drawbacks won't necessarily make his line B.J. Uptonian, and base thefts always supplement dollar returns, but a potential 20-plus-point downward BA swing strips away tangible bucks. He hasn't reached his apex yet, but for the immediate future, too many stars have to align for it to happen in his age-26 year.

Where do Pedro Alvarez and A.J. Burnett go from here?

Since a sizable chunk of their typical profiles stuck, they won't drop off much from 2012. Unfortunately, that doesn't speak all that well of Alvarez. His power, as usual, came in bunches and overcame another high seasonal grounder rate, which, despite the muscle he generates, says it'll take a lot to hope for consistent 30-homer output.

He'll sniff that most of the time, but the voluminous faults with his BA profile, headlined by a subterranean contact rate, say Alvarez must repeat that frequency of fence-clearing to remain a valuable mixed corner infielder. His distance between a cheap Adam Dunn and a platoon player is much shorter than that of his current form and an elite commodity.

Amazing how Burnett was left for dead in roto circles before his swap to the National League and a favorable home environment. Even when he was consistently facing designated hitters, he carried the seeds of what he showed us last year.

The big-bodied righty gave up a bit too many homers in 2011. He corrected that last year with a worm-burner boost; a better rate of stranded runners; and increased zone pounding, which significantly cut his free passes allowed. They seemingly tweaked his delivery or mindset, too, because the big turn during his windup threw off his mechanics often when he was in the Bronx.

His 2012 confirmation of an above-average empty-hack rate says his foundation will tease elite performance as long as he's in the Senior Circuit. Even with some backsliding, that'll make do for a mixed No. 4, if doubt lets him fall that far.

Why did Pittsburgh tab Jason Grilli as closer?

Well, part of it stems from convenience; Joel Hanrahan's salary was set to increase. Still, since landing in the 'Burgh in late 2011, Grilli has posted some of the best relief numbers in the game.

Pittsburgh Pirates 2B Neil Walker
Walker can be a hit, with some reach

He built on the suffocating stuff he showed last summer with a 13.81 K/9 last year in setting up Hanrahan, who often proved shaky. The cost-effective alternative increased his velocity, which naturally led him to trust No. 1 more frequently and empower his highly rated slide piece. In turn, that allowed him to punch the black with authority.

He'll likely stumble a tad, especially since he frequently danced around homers and frozen ropes along with his spots of control woes. But his 2012 FIP pair said he actually could've been better. The Buccos don't have an elite 'pen, but Tony Watson and Jared Hughes could be handy in table-setting duties.

More importantly, the unfounded universal stigma of mediocre-to-bad teams generating inferior numbers of save chances may allow Grilli to dip into third-closer territory, which ranks as the optimal spot to call his name.

What if Neil Walker stayed healthy?

A promising 42-game run (.348-10-37) was halted on Aug. 15 when a sliding runner landed on Walker's right pinkie. A herniated disc later sapped his mobility and strength, rendering him all but useless for the rest of the season. The seven-homer July lit a spark, reminding us of the latent potential hidden between a mediocre body of work. An injured top hand often corrupts hitting. Was his back an issue at various points in the season?

Pirates manager and frequent batting advisor Clint Hurdle also made an astute observation: Walker generates much less thump from the right side than the left. He will work with hitting coach Jay Bell to extract more from his minority swing.

If the extra help takes and his positive winter health reports hold up, another step in fantasy worth awaits in his age-27 campaign. For the price of a deep-mixed middle infielder, you can test whether Walker's steady across-the-board production will turn into something bigger. Many other selections in that tier don't come close to surpassing their price.


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