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As the 2011 Major League Baseball season begins the only things that the Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates have in common is that they both play in the National League and call Pennsylvania home. That notwithstanding, the teams couldn’t be farther apart in terms of their recent success and expectations for the year ahead. The Phillies decided to more or less ‘stand pat’ in the off-season and most of the important components of a team that finished 97-85 are back. The Pirates, meanwhile, will be looking for their first winning season in over 15 years though after a 2010 campaign where they finished 57-105 any improvement will be considered a success.
The Philadelphia Phillies’ lineup is set and the hope now is that they can avoid the nagging injuries that plagued them during 2010. The infield was especially hard hit with shortstop Jimmy Rollins, second baseman Chase Utley and first baseman Ryan Howard all being hampered by a variety of ailments. Even third baseman Placido Polanco wasn’t immune to the Phils’ ‘infield jinx’—he required shoulder surgery after the season.
Less problematic is the Philadelphia starting rotation which is arguably the best in baseball. Free agent signee Cliff Lee joins a staff that includes Cy Young winner Roy Halladay, Roy Oswalt and Cole Hamels. Joe Blanton is currently the 5th starter but the team could give some starts to some young prospects including Kyle Kendrick and Vance Worley. Brad Lidge will be the closer—he’s been inconsistent at various points in his career but when he’s pitching well he’s one of the best in the game.
Overall, the mentality in Philadelphia is ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’. Barring serious injuries it’s difficult to envision a scenario in which the Phillies aren’t in contention for the National League pennant. Best case scenario—they could be flat out dominant in every phase of the game.
Across the state in Pittsburgh the expectations are much lower and the criteria for a successful season far less ambitious. Clint Hurdle takes over as manager with the daunting challenge of changing the culture of losing for a franchise that hasn’t had a winning season since 1995. He’s not suggesting that the team will turn things around immediately but is optimistic about the future:
"There is not a doubt in my mind that this is eventually going to turn. I wanted to get on board now because I believe this is the time it's going to start turning."
He’s not alone in his hopeful tone about the future of this team—the Pirates have a ton of young talent with four everyday starters 25 and younger who all have All Star potential. Second baseman Neil Walker, outfielder Jose Tabata, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and center fielder Andrew McCutchen have superstar potential and at very least could be solid players for years to come. They’ll be joined by free agent signees Lyle Overbay and Matt Diaz to form the core of the everyday lineup this season.
The pitching staff will be an issue once again this season, though there are some good prospects in the minors who are expected to make an impact a season or two down the road. The Pirates finished dead last in team ERA in 2010 and though they did pick up Kevin Correia from San Diego in the offseason the rest of the rotation—Paul Maholm, Ross Ohlendorf, James McDonald and Charlie Morton—aren’t exactly All Star level. The Bucs do have high hopes for closer Joel Hanrahan, but there’s serious concern about the ability of the rest of the staff to put him in a position to save games.
Pittsburgh may be a few years away from a return to respectability, but there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel. Hurdle’s enthusiastic managerial style should produce an immediate improvement in the team’s chemistry that should translate into some additional wins. Given the quality of the Pirates’ young talent, they could ‘come into their own’ sooner than expected and make Pittsburgh a tough opponent for anyone in the National League.