If you had to pick one club who consistently failed to produce much of value on a fantasy baseball level the last decade, it would be the Pittsburgh Pirates. Oftentimes, they have one or two players who are worth snapping up, but they aren't star players, and are almost never starting pitchers either. You get occasional pieces like Freddy Sanchez, Adam LaRoche, Mike Gonzalez, Octavio Dotel—useful players for filling out your roster or racking up saves, but that's about it.
Things have changed in the second half of 2010 though, as the Pirates have opened the gates to their future by bringing up Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and Jose Tabata. Last year we got Andrew McCutchen, who has potential to be a fantasy stud if he hasn't already hit that point, and thanks to a nifty trade with the Dodgers, the Pirates may finally have a starting pitcher worth paying attention to in James McDonald. That's five Pirates who may make an impact in 2011, and not in the "Well, maybe he'll break out" style of Lastings Milledge or Ryan Church, or the "maybe he'll keep it up…" Garrett Jones model.
The name everyone has been focused on is Pedro Alvarez. He's currently a third baseman who may have to make the shift over to first for defensive purposes, but his bat should play there no problem. In his rookie season, he's got a .276 TAv and is fourth on the team in runs above replacement despite having just 226 plate appearances—while that says a lot about the Pirates, it also says a lot about Alvarez. The 23 year old had a .284 TAv in Triple-A this year, and while he hasn't hit that level yet in the bigs, he's close: after a .152/.216/.196 introduction to the majors in 46 June at-bats, Alvarez has hit .273/.360/.506 since in 154 at-bats. If he keeps the production up for the rest of the year, he's going to be a valuable addition at third base, and his bat may even play well at first at this early stage in his career from both a real and fantasy baseball perspective in 2011.
Jose Tabata is a fine fantasy option for different reasons than Alvarez—while the latter is a power hitter, Tabata is going to earn his stripes on the bases. Tabata's TAv earned him a spot amongst the 10 most productive hitters in the International League this season, and though a slow start has dragged down his season line just like Alvarez, there's a lot to like here. His .271 TAv is right near the average in left, despite his lack of power production and the fact he's been caught stealing seven times in 19 attempts (63 percent success). He was 25 for 31 at Triple-A this year after an iffy showing at two levels in 2009, so with a little more experience afoot he could turn out to be an effective thief even in leagues that use net steals—he's not quite there yet though, so keep an eye on how he does with base thefts from here on out.
The unsung name on the offense is Neil Walker, though that shouldn't be a surprise since Walker was a catcher converted to third base and then shifted to second base, all as a way to get his bat in the lineup. While it's too early to tell if the Astros will sign him to man center field in the twilight of his career, the present day is looking good. Walker has hit .297/.345/.429 this season in 291 plate appearances, good for a TAv of .280 that's well above the second base average of .265. He's not going to get you anything in the way of steals, as he has two in just four attempts on the year, but chances are good he's going to be able to provide you with something in the way of runs and RBI next season given the lineup being constructed around him.
Whereas this season's opening day lineup featured offensive luminaries like Akinori Iwamura, Andy LaRoche, and Jeff Clement, next year's will have the three players mentioned above, as well as McCutchen, meaning they should all help each other boost their fantasy value outside of what they bring with their own talents. Players like Lastings Milledge, Chris Snyder and/or Ryan Doumit also pick up some value in this sense, as better teammates can make for better fantasy players when it comes to R and RBI totals.
In James McDonald, the Pirates got themselves a starting pitcher who can miss bats, which is not something they are used to having. Their defense has been poor in the past and this season, but the fact they have a bunch of soft-tossing hurlers hasn't helped either. McDonald isn't a fantasy necessity yet, but he's a good stash in leagues with lots of keeper slots, especially if you can get him cheap. He's striking out 9.6 batters per nine while walking 3.2 per nine over 25 1/3 innings this season, which is a small sample, but worth paying attention to. His SIERA with the Bucs is 2.51, and while I don't think he has that kind of value over the course of a full season, he's going to be the first Pirate starter worth keeping or drafting in the first half of a fantasy draft in what seems like forever.
McDonald is more of a flyball oriented pitcher, which given a Tabata/McCutchen/Milledge outfield, is not a bad thing—just try not to watch when Doumit is out in right. Homers shouldn't be a problem from right-handed batters in his home starts, as PNC works in the pitcher's favor in that regard. His fastball sits in around 91-93 with some good movement, and he has a breaking ball he likes to throw often, as well as a changeup that acts as his third pitch and is about 10-11 mph slower than his heater. He needs to attack hitters in the zone a little more often, as a patient team can still drive his pitch count up and drive him from a game early, but you can see the stuff is there for him to harness.
All four of these players are worth a look in 2010, but are potential impact players in 2011. If you're already out of the race, or you're short on keepers or have a little extra FAAB money to spend, take a shot on one or two of these names—for once, holding onto a Pirate can be something other than having a roster spot to fill.