The 2013 Pirates finally broke through and made the playoffs. After flirting with contention through July in 2011 and 2012, that next step was critical in the development of the franchise, and Clint Hurdle‘s job security. There is no reason to think the Pirates can’t duplicate their success in 2014 and make another strong run at a second straight postseason bid.
Projected Record: 90-72, 2nd Place in NL Central
The only component missing any pieces of significance in the 2014 edition of the Pirates is the starting pitching. After losing A.J. Burnett to what was originally thought to be retirement and then subsequently to the Phillies, the best starter to pitch the entire season is now gone. It will be up to young stud Gerrit Cole to pick up that slack.
The Pirates hope to recreate the magic they made with Francisco Liriano last season again with Edinson Volquez. While the Bucs have highly touted prospect Jameson Taillon waiting in the wings for a spot in the rotation, Pirates beat writer Travis Sawchik tweeted that GM Neal Huntington made a strong hint that it would be Volquez going north. Taillon, for his part, could find his way up after the Super Two date, and replace Wandy Rodriguez, who is in his final year and is a candidate to be moved this summer. That move could actually make the rotation stronger, as Rodriguez’s 99 ERA+ was the lowest on the team last season, and at 35, it would be a stretch to think Wandy is going to get much better with age. The biggest question in the rotation is Volquez, but with Jeff Locke and Taillon available, there is room for error there. Locke, for his part, likely gets squeezed because his 2013 seems to have been a fair amount of luck. His 3.52 ERA does not seem to mesh well with his 1.383 WHIP and his 1.49 K/BB ratio. He walked 4.5 per nine innings last season, and everything about his All-Star appearance is a mystery because the numbers say he was very, very average.
There is not a lot that can be said about the Pirates bullpen that wasn’t said last season. It was, in a word, spectacular. After sending former closer Joel Hanrahan to Boston and bringing in Mark Melancon, it appeared as though this group would take a step back. With five relievers: Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro, Justin Wilson, and Tony Watson; combining and all having sub 3.00 ERAs, keeping walks down, and striking out batters at a strong rate, the Pirates’ ‘pen was nasty on every level. Vin Mazzaro is being made available this spring, which would reduce some of that potency, but no move has been made as of yet. Jeanmar Gomez and Bryan Morris also had very effective seasons in Pittsburgh last season. One last name to watch is lefty Daniel Schlereth, who has not pitched since 2012 because of shoulder issues. He’s having a very nice spring as a non-roster invite. While the shoulder problems took some of the heat out of his fastball, a new, lower arm slot is giving it different action. He has a chance to break camp with the big league club, especially if a move is made to trade Mazzaro.
The Pirates acquired Chris Stewart from the Yankees this off-season, but he has succumb to injury already this spring, leaving them to look to Tony Sanchez as the primary back-up to Russell Martin. Martin was a blessing for the Pirates last season, bringing a veteran presence that can control a pitching staff and play good defense. His 4.3 WAR was his highest since posting a 5.0 in 2007 with the Dodgers. To this point in the spring, Martin has picked up where he left off last season. The team does appear to be looking around to replace Tony Sanchez in hopes of finding a better alternative, which would help the offense on days where Martin needs a break.
Justin Morneau has departed for Colorado, and has left a platoon opening at first base. For the moment, it appears Andrew Lambo is going to get a crack at filling that role, although the team is looking to find an upgrade. Pedro Alvarez led the NL in home runs last season with 36, but struck out 186 times. He will probably never have a high average or on-base percentage, as his career .235/.306/.443 illustrates, but he has a ton of power, which brought him to a 3.1 oWAR last season, in spite of the low averages. Neil Walker is a somewhat forgotten man with the Pirates, getting lost in the successes of the pitchers, Alvarez, and superstar Andrew McCutchen, but his 3.9 bWAR illustrates that he is a very solid complimentary piece to the mix of talent they have. One player to watch is Jordy Mercer, who may take the starting short stop job from Clint Barmes. In 2013, Mercer had the better season at the plate, but does give up a little defensively.
If there was any doubt as to whether or not Andrew McCutchen was a bona fide superstar before last season, it is gone now. After winning the NL MVP, and doing so in deserving fashion, McCutchen is going to need to duplicate last season to lead the Pirates to the playoffs again. A case can be made that he is the best player in the National League, if not all of MLB, though, so his production should not be an issue. Starling Marte has taken firm hold of left field, after a .280/.343/.441 first full season. His 41 stolen bases made him a nightmare on the base paths, although he did get caught 15 times. With experience, his recognition should improve, making his success rate even better. Right field continues to be in flux, with Jose Tabata and Travis Snider there for now. Reports are surfacing that they could be moved. Should that happen, another highly touted prospect in Gregory Polanco is waiting in AAA, and could claim the job – giving Pittsburgh a very young, athletic, and talented outfield.
A second place finish in the division would not be a disappointment for the Pirates. With the potential for more movement, the Pirates could add pieces to become a more potent threat. It does seem as though the days of being a doormat have gone in Pittsburgh. In spite of seeing a number of areas of weakness and the willingness to move players who played a role in their postseason run last year, the Pirates do have depth to replace players who move on, and in some instances, improve. For those reasons, it would be a surprise to see the Pirates fall back into mediocrity. There is no good reason to think they will not compete in the division and for the postseason, although they will likely be in a fight with the Reds until the very end of the season.