BY RYAN MILOWICKI
2013 Record: 94-68 (2nd Place NL Central, 3 GB)
Did anyone see this coming? 21 was the lucky number (and Roberto Clemente’s number too) for the Buccos, who finally ended pro sports’ worst losing habit (20 seasons below .500) in history. But that wasn’t good enough for the Pirates, as they roared to 94 wins, a playoff berth, a wildcard win (with eternal gratitude to Russell Martin), and came oh so close to beating the Cardinals in the NLDS. They took home some hardware as well, with Andrew McCutchen winning NL MVP, Clint Hurdle winning NL Manager of the Year, Pedro Alvarez winning the NL home run crown out of nowhere, and Francisco Liriano winning Comeback Player of the Year. While lacking in high-price talent, the Pirates have intangibles in spades, boasting one of the best locker-room environments in the MLB as well as one of the loudest and most supportive fan bases out there.
Now that the streak of futility is over now, the question for the future is the prospect of future success and sustainability. They dialed up 94 wins on the backs of one of the majors’ best bullpens, anchored by All-Stars Jason Grilli and Mark Melancon. The entire Shark Tank makes its return this year, and there’s no reason why it can’t challenge Atlanta for best in the league. However, the offense struggled mightily at times, leading to some ugly games (most notably a feeble sweep at the hands of the Rockies in late August). With the Reds and Cardinals always lurking as serious playoff threats, it is extremely tough to compete in the NL Central, especially with an offseason as quiet as the Pirates’. We’ll see if the good feelings and strong bullpen are enough to carry the Pirates to the playoffs for the second year in a row.
SP Edinson Volquez (1yr/$5 mil)
1B Chris McGuinness (trade with Texas)
A.J. Burnett’s departure to Philadelphia leaves a gaping hole in the Pirates’ rotation that nobody in the Pirates’ price range could fill. Nonetheless, they had to try, so they brought in embattled starter Volquez to compete for a slot in spring training. He hasn’t had a winning season his his All-Star performance for the Reds in 2008, and he’s given up 17 runs in 14 innings in spring training thus far, so it will certainly be an experiment. However, the Pirates do need a right-handed starter, so they’re hoping that he can have a Liriano-esque career turnaround.
With Garrett Jones bolting for Miami this offseason, the perennial Pirates platoon at first base is in need of a second man. The Pirates haven’t had a true everyday first baseman since Adam LaRoche in 2008, and Gaby Sanchez is not the man to change that. McGuinness is a strong left-handed bat, so look for him to make an immediate impact on the team. Depending on the handedness of the starter they face Opening Day, he could even open the season in the Pirates lineup.
A.J. Burnett: Batman was the heart and soul of the Pirates’ 2013 intangibles, from his popularization of the “Zoltan” symbol which became common vernacular in Pittsburgh to his habit of pieing players during their postgame interviews. Unfortunately for the front office, this is the year when they would have had to start actually paying for his services (the Yankees took care of that in 2012 and 2013). Thus, the Pirates were unable to match the $16 million offer the Phillies were able to offer Burnett. His leadership off the field will be missed even more than his dominant presence on the mound.
Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd: Brought in as rent-a-players at the trade deadline, the veterans provided experience and knowledge of a playoff race to the Pittsburgh bench. Morneau was a bit of a bust in his time in black and gold (0 HR, 3 RBI), but Byrd was extremely serviceable as a corner outfielder protecting the bats of McCutchen and Alvarez. It’s no surprise to see them go however, since the Pirates are perennially unwilling to shell out large contracts on aging players.
PLAYER TO WATCH
Starling Marte. In his first full season with the Pirates, Marte put up decent numbers for a leadoff hitter(.280 AVG and .343 OBP), but spent much of the second half injured. He made some crucial gaffes in August, and went an abysmal 1-for-19 in the NLDS, so he has some major room for improvement. This offseason has allowed his hand to heal, so he has the potential this year to be the tablesetter Pittsburgh needs him to be. If he can steal 40+ bases again, hit 15+ home runs, and cut down on his strikeout numbers, Marte could easily become the best leadoff hitter in the NL Central (since Choo and Aoki left). If he channels his speed and arm strength into better play in left field, he could give the Pirates their second five-tool outfielder (Hint: Travis Snider is NOT the first one).
Projected Opening Day Lineup
Liriano is followed in the rotation by Gerrit Cole, Jeff Locke, Charlie Morton, and either Wandy Rodriguez (if his elbow stops hurting) or Edinson Volquez.
With the quiet offseason the Pirates had, it’s hard to say if the team they put out on the field is better than that of 2013. The Reds and Cardinals are just as impressive as they were last year, so the three-man race for NL Central supremacy will be equally enticing. The Pirates still lack the offensive firepower to call the playoffs a slam dunk for them, but a second consecutive appearance is not out of the question. With their bullpen returning just as strong as before, a healthy Starling Marte, and a (hopefully) more patient Pedro Alvarez, the team has the talent to easily pass the .500 mark again. If they can win clutch games like they did last year (sweeping the Reds in the last weekend of the season and taking 4 of 5 against the Cardinals in August), then they should be able to battle their way into another Wild Card game, likely against the Reds again. I don’t know about you, but it’s nice to see competitive baseball in Pittsburgh again.