The good news is that Kyle Lohse looked better than his seven innings and four earned runs, which is not something I really expected to say. In 2010 Lohse managed to do that exactly once in 18 tries, striking out eight without walking a man in his first start of May; in 2010 he actually allowed 10 hits more frequently than he notched five strikeouts, so really any missed bats at all is a noticeable improvement.
But at his best he was better than adequate, and with one regular season start tucked into his bitchin' motocross helmet it's fair to suggest that he might, over the course of the season, provide more value to the Cardinals than you anticipated, especially if you were anticipating zero until yesterday.
But this was Lohse's gift to us: We don't have to open up another neurotic front in the war against our enjoyment of Cardinals baseball. With the pitching doing its best to proclaim its fundamental decency we can focus on a power outage from the bats so severe that a rolling blackout was recently instituted on Matt Holliday.
I'd hate to lay the weight of exemplariness to one of the few guys who's actually hitting, but right now this whole team makes me feel like I'm watching old-player-skills Lance Berkman, in various states of effectiveness. Nobody's making terrible offensive decisions, and it seems like they're on first base more often than they have any right to be, but once they get there they're running with ankle-weights on and the back of the lineup is just about to roll around.
That's what I don't want to feel all season—that sensation that, no matter who just got on base, I'm about to see Skip Schumaker, the pitcher's spot, and Ryan Theriot launch the rescue mission at first base with two outs.
Recently Charlie Wilmoth, editor of Pirates sister-blog Bucs Dugout (and SB Nation Pittsburgh), and I exchanged five questions about our respective clubs in advance of the series. You can see my answers about the Cardinals here, and you can see his about the Pirates starting... right now.
My lasting memory of Neil Walker is as a disappointing catcher and top-prospect-by-default. How did he become Jeff Kent?
He had been struggling in the minors and had almost completely flat-lined in Class AAA, but late in the 2009 season, he suddenly started hitting for average. The power had always been there, but had been accompanied by low batting averages and OBPs.
The Pirates had moved him from catcher to third a couple years before, then tried him at second last year when Akinori Iwamura flopped. Walker isn't good there defensively, but obviously, his bat plays very well there as long as he can keep his average above .270 or so.
Is Jose Tabata really 22? How does the age question affect your understanding of his development?
Well, nobody really knows how old he is, and Pirates GM Neal Huntington (who's incredibly bad with the press) stoked speculation last year when he suggested that he didn't care how old Tabata was. But there's no real reason to think Tabata's listed age isn't accurate, and age-gate issues are less common with Venezuelan players like Tabata than they are with Dominican players. Obviously, if Tabata is 25 instead of 22, that affects how much power he might develop in the future, but I think he probably really is 22.
How long should Pedro Alvarez be able to stick at third base?
I think they should have moved him to first this offseason, honestly. Walker is a plus third baseman but a weak second baseman, and Alvarez is a weak third baseman whose body type probably isn't going to let him stay at the position long. So my preference for the offseason would have been for the Pirates to acquire a decent defensive middle infielder, like J.J. Hardy or Orlando Hudson, and move Walker and Alvarez to positions for which they're better-suited. The Pirates' infield defense was a major problem last year, and it figures to be one again in 2011. It's a shame that Alvarez doesn't really have the quickness and range to handle third long-term, because he has a very good arm.
The lineup has a lot of promising pieces right now. Are there any rotation reinforcements on the horizon?
The Pirates' front office thinks Rudy Owens is massively underrated - he has a tremendous minor-league performance record and had a bump in his velocity last year. He's going to start the season in Class AAA and could join the rotation at some point this season. There are also a number of other Grade-B type prospects in the upper minors (Bryan Morris, Jeff Locke, Justin Wilson) who could arrive soon. There's also a tremendous number of potential starters in the low minors, many of them selected in the 2009 draft - two to watch this season are Colton Cain and Zack Von Rosenberg. But the really high-upside pitching prospects (Jameson Taillon, Stetson Allie and Luis Heredia) are very, very young and won't be in the big leagues for several more years, if they ever get there.
What's the difference between this team and the next Pirates club that wins 80?
That team will have better pitching and much better defense. The 2008 Rays won 31 more games than the previous season thanks in part to acquiring Jason Bartlett and shifting some other defenders to positions they could handle. It's not hard to imagine the Pirates experiencing a smaller but still meaningful improvement by doing something similar in a year or two.