Pirates pitchers and catchers have arrived on the Florida Gulf Coast, and others are starting to trickle into Pirate City.
The Bucs are looking for their 3rd straight season of record improvement. In 2011, the Pirates finished 72-90, playing way over their heads for much of the season, and somewhat under their heads for half, but boasting a welcomed improvement of 15 games.
In 2012, the Pirates looked like a legitimate threat to win the central division or a wild card spot up until mid-August when the wheels fell off and the Pirates had the worst fall from grace in recorded baseball history. Still, the 79-83 result was a 7 game improvement over the prior season, but it left a much more sour taste in the collective mouth of the Pirate-faithful. “Disappointing” is an understatement. “Unacceptable” is right on the money.
Many reasons have been cited for the epic collapse, from messing up the chemistry with trades, to tired pitchers, to Kevin Correia’s menstrual cycle, to a 6-man rotation, among others. Almost from top-to-bottom, Pirate pitching, hitting, fielding, and managing went completely down the tubes.
While the 2012 trade deadline may have had negative impacts in 2012, it could potentially pay dividends this year. Gaby Sanchez will be leaned on to return to form at first base, and he could turn into a solid platoon option. Wandy Rodriguez will provide an experienced lefty in the 2 spot of the Pirate rotation. You know what you’re going to get when Wandy is on the mound, and it’s usually solid. Travis Snider has boom-or-bust potential as a right fielder, and busting out and becoming a chef may not be the worst thing, as he probably has as much or more potential at that (if you’ve seen his Twitpics). Starling Marte also was able to get his feet wet in 2012. 2013 will most likely be a season of ups and downs for him, but he still boasts exciting potential.
To avoid a third straight late-season collapse, Pirate management made moves to shed some of the dead weight and bring in some experienced major-leaguers. Rod Barajas, arguably the worst catcher in all of professional baseball last season – at any level – was declined his club option. Kevin Correia was given an undeserving lucrative offer in Minnesota, which is addition-by-subtraction.
The Pirates were also forced to make a small-market business decision to trade highly-touted closer Joel Hanrahan. The return was nothing special, but Mark Melancon should provide some late innings bullpen help.
The centerpiece of the Pirates free agent signings for this and really the last several years was the acquisition of Russell Martin on a two year deal – one in which they out-bid the New York Yankees. Martin will provide veteran stability at the catcher position and an upgraded bat in the bottom third of the order.
The rest of the off-season was highlighted by the acquisition of a plethora of bounce-back and breakout candidates, in a seemingly “throw-stuff-at-the-wall-and-see-what-sticks” mentality.
The Pirates enter the season boasting a few nice pieces and a lot of question marks. All-star centerfielder Andrew McCutchen comes into the season with a lot of bling – gold in the field and silver at the plate. The sky is the limit for this star, and he is expected to repeat his MVP-like performance. At second, Neil Walker has become steady for the Pirates. Last year he dealt with a late season back injury, but if he is 100%, he will be just fine and will provide a nice boost to the top third of the lineup. Pedro Alvarez on the hot corner had a feast or famine season last year, going long stretches without even making contact before going through torrid hot streaks. The 26-year old finished the season with a respectable .317 OBP to go along with 30 homers and team high 180 strikeouts. If Pedro improves his consistency as expected, he could turn into an excellent cleanup hitter heading into the season. If Pedro repeats still struggles making contact, he will end up having to move down the lineup, opening the cleanup spot for Garrett Jones, who starts the year once again in a platoon situation. Jones had a career year in 2012, hammering 27 homers in just 475 at bats. He’s unlikely to repeat that success, but if he can come anywhere close, the Pirates will have a solid option in the middle of the lineup. Newly-acquired catcher Russell Martin will provide a much needed boost to the position, and should be a nice addition to the 6 or 7 spot in the batting order with his ability to knock in runs. Clint Barmes was futile at the dish in 2012, but his .333 OBP over the final 2 months of the season was an excellent turnaround and provides hope for him coming into this year. Barmes was arguably the best shortstop in the league last season with his lights-out defense.
The rest of the lineup is filled with question marks. The corner outfield spots are Starling Marte’s and Travis Snider’s to lose, and they’ll see competition from Jose Tabata, Alex Presley, Jerry Sands, and even Garrett Jones, though Jones will split time at first with Gaby Sanchez, who looks to have a bounce back year.
As for pitching, the Pirates will start the season with easily its best rotation since the turn of the millennium. A.J. Burnett was the rock last year, and took on the captain role of the whole team. His numbers may decline, but he is a gutsy performer who finds a way to win. Wandy Rodriguez will provide a ton of innings and consistency in the #2 spot, but he won’t be flashy. J-Mac starts the year slotted into the 3 spot. If James can pitch anywhere close to how he did prior to the all-star break last year that would be huge for the Pirates. He most likely won’t, but if he plays more toward where he started than where he finished, he will be fine as the 3rd starter. Free agent acquisition Francisco Liriano will be the 4th starter. Liriano has always been a high strikeout pitcher, but walks a ton of hitters. If Liriano can keep his walks somewhat down and keep the ball in the park, he could be an excellent pickup for this team for the back end of the rotation, and potentially even play better than a #4 pitcher. Finally the #5 starter spot is up for grabs. Jeff Karstens was brought back on a bargain 1-year deal, but he will have to battle with youngsters Jeff Locke and Kyle McPherson, as well as veteran Jonathan Sanchez for the spot. With top prospect Gerrit Cole expected to join the big club as soon as June, the 5th starter spot may end up being irrelevant.
The biggest question mark this year is the bullpen. The departures of Joel Hanrahan and Chris Resop could devastate this group, but the current management group has always found a way to build a solid bullpen. Jason Grilli will take over closing duties, and if he repeats last season he will be excellent. Mark Melancon has the early track to the setup man role, and should provide a solid late inning option. Jared Hughes and lefty Tony Watson return after pretty solid seasons, and should be good middle inning options. Rookie Bryan Morris and Chris Leroux are also expected to make the opening day roster, and will have the opportunity to solidify their roles. The final spot will most likely go to one of the guys up for the 5th starter job. If Sanchez, Locke, or McPherson wins the starting job, expect Karstens to work out of the bullpen in long relief. If Karstens wins the starting job, Sanchez or Locke will probably pitch out of the bullpen in long relief or as a second lefty option. Any way you cut it though, if the Bucs are in contention again in July, bolstering the bullpen may be at the top of the list for the trade deadline.
Though there are many question marks surrounding the lineup, there are tons of internal options to answer those questions. It’s possible that these spots remain glaring holes throughout the season, but it’s also possible that someone will step up and separate himself from the pack. And the season could depend on it.
The Pirates may need one more year to answer some of these questions and put everything together, but with some excellent major leaguers and the 5th-best farm system, things are finally starting to look up for the organization. The excitement surrounding this team last July and August might have just been a taste of what’s to come.
Batting Average: Andrew McCutchen (.327)
Hits: Andrew McCutchen (194)
Runs: Andrew McCutchen (107)
Home Runs: Andrew McCutchen (31)
Runs Batted In: Andrew McCutchen (96)
Stolen Bases: Andrew McCutchen (20)
On-Base Percentage: Andrew McCutchen (.400)
Starts: A.J. Burnett (31)
Innings Pitched: A.J. Burnett (202.1)
Wins: A.J. Burnett (16)
Earned Run Average: Joel Hanrahan (2.72), A.J. Burnett (3.51)
Strikeouts: A.J. Burnett (180)
Saves: Joel Hanrahan (36)
R. Barajas, C (Arizona)
K. Correia, P (Minnesota)
J. Hanrahan, P (Boston)
B. Holt, 2B (Boston)
C. Resop, P (Oakland)
I. DeJesus, SS (Boston)
J. Gomez, P (Cleveland)
F. Liriano, P (Chicago White Sox)
R. Martin, C (New York Yankees)
V. Mazzaro, P (Kansas City)
M. Melancon, P (Boston)
A. Oliver, P (Detroit)
C. Robinson, 1B (Kansas City)
J. Sanchez, P (Colorado)
J. Sands, 1B/OF (Boston)
Expected Opening Day Lineup:
#6 LF Starling Marte
#18 2B Neil Walker*
#22 CF Andrew McCutchen
#24 3B Pedro Alvarez
#46 1B Garrett Jones
#55 C Russell Martin
#23 RF Travis Snider
#12 SS Clint Barmes
#34 RHP A.J. Burnett
*The Pirates may elect to break up Alvarez and Jones with Walker, move Snider to 2, and move Martin to 7
#5 IF Josh Harrison
#7 OF Alex Presley
#14 IF Gaby Sanchez
#19 C Michael McKenry
#31 OF Jose Tabata
#27 RHP Jeff Karstens
#29 RHP Bryan Morris
#35 RHP Mark Melancon
#39 RHP Jason Grilli
#44 LHP Tony Watson
#47 LHP Francisco Liriano
#48 RHP Jared Hughes
#49 LHP Jeff Locke
#51 LHP Wandy Rodriguez
#53 RHP James McDonald
#63 RHP Chris Leroux
And of course,
LET'S GO BUCS!