Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
The Pirates are always easy to write off.
Pittsburgh is a small market and the club hasn't had a winning season in 20 years. The front office has a penchant for trading the team's best players and their yellow uniforms don't exactly qualify as intimidating either.
"Pirates" and "fantasy baseball" just don't seem like they belong in the same sentence.
Tuesday night, I thought I'd head to Pittsburgh to have a look at the troubled Pirates, who were playing host to ancient lefthander Jamie Moyer and the Colorado Rockies.
Now that I have had a chance to see the Pirates in person, my outlook surrounding the team is a little less gloomy.
Even in a division that was stripped of perhaps its two most talented players during the offseason (Albert Pujols and Prince Fielder), Pittsburgh (currently 8-10) seems like a longshot to make it to October. But I do think the Pirates are in possession of a few very interesting fantasy pieces.
The most obvious fantasy possibility is Andrew McCutchen, who had already established himself as a top-10 fantasy outfielder prior to this year.
The 25-year-old centerfielder continues to be the rock in the middle of Pittsburgh's lineup, leading the squad in batting average (.329), hits (23) and on base percentage (.373).
Though McCutchen's power numbers have declined from a season ago (0 HRs, 6 RBIs in his first 18 games), the .329 batting average is a big improvement from last season's .259.
While some would label the .329 mark as merely a hot start, McCutchen's history tells us he should be able to maintain this average or something close to it for most of the year.
Before 2011, McCutchen was definitely more of a contact hitter, batting for a higher average (.286 in both 2009 and 2010), with fewer homers and strikeouts. Last season McCutchen opted for more power, increasing his home run total from 16 in 2010 to 23 in 2011, while also recording far more strikeouts (126 in 2011 compared to just 89 in 2010) and swiping fewer bases (23 steals last year after notching 33 the previous year).
McCutchen seems to have returned to his roots this year, acting more like a scrappy leadoff batter than a middle of the order power hitter.
That's not to say that McCutchen has lost all of his pop. He just missed a three-run homer Tuesday night against Rockies lefthander Rex Brothers, instead settling for a long, two-run double.
Remember, Monday night's game in Pittsburgh was cancelled because of snow and freezing rain and even Tuesday was a bit chilly (low 50s) in the Steel City. Once the weather gets into the 70s and 80s at PNC Park, McCutchen's doubles should start turning into home runs. Even if McCutchen can't fully regain the power he exhibited in 2011, he seems like a pretty safe bet for 15 homers, 30 stolen bases and a .300 average, which would make him one of the most useful outfielders in fantasy.
Joel Hanrahan is Pittsburgh's other fantasy stud. Entering to Slipknot's heavy metal anthem "Before I Forget," Hanrahan was ferocious on Tuesday night, catapulting 95 mile an hour heat at Todd Helton, Michael Cuddyer and Ramon Hernandez for three consecutive outs.
Once the 50 degree spring weather in Pittsburgh gives way to summer, Hanrahan's velocity should be in the 97-98 mile per hour range. Combine that elite speed with Hanrahan's equally devastating slider and you've got one heck of a closer. Hanrahan, who has now registered saves in 12 out of his last 13 chances dating back to last season, deserves to be spoken in the same breath as Mariano Rivera and Jonathan Papelbon.
Also on display Tuesday night was Kevin Correia, another underrated pitching commodity with intriguing fantasy potential. He lasted six innings against the Rockies and certainly could have gone deeper into the game if Clint Hurdle hadn't decided to pinch-hit for him with the bases loaded in the bottom of the sixth. His only real blemish was a line-drive homer he let up to Carlos Gonzalez in the first inning. After a tough opening frame, Correia found his groove and at one point retired 14 of 15 hitters.
Right now, Correia is leading the Pittsburgh staff with an ERA of 2.00 through three starts. Correia got off to a similarly strong start in 2011 (11-7, 4.01 ERA before the All-Star break) before the wheels fell off in the second half of the season (1-4, 7.23 the rest of the way).
Correia has made enough adjustments this season to make me believe he won't fall off a cliff in the second half this time around. He's making fewer mistakes (allowed one homer in three starts after giving up nearly a homer per game last season) and overall his control has been terrific (three walks given up so far this season compared to surrendering 39 in 26 starts in 2011). Correia's opponents' batting average has also improved dramatically from a season ago (.175 compared to .287 last year).
To me, the fantasy wild card in the bunch is Alex Presley, a little guy (5'9) with tons of speed. Presley is batting .284 so far in his first full season in the league and he demonstrated some amazing quickness last week by hitting an inside-the-park homer against the Cardinals. Presley might not hit another home run this season but if he puts his mind to it, he could hit close to .300 with 25-30 stolen bases. At less than seven percent owned, Presley might be one of the best kept secrets in fantasy.
They're not the Texas Rangers, but if you're smart about it, you can get some pretty good use out of the Pirates in fantasy this season. Let's just hope it doesn't snow again in Pittsburgh any time soon.
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