Andrew McCutchen. Image Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

2014 MLB Team Previews: Pittsburgh Pirates

Pittsburgh Pirates

2013 Record: 94-68 (.580, 2nd place, 3 games back of St. Louis)

2013 in Review

Everything came together for the Pirates in 2013 as they made the playoffs for the first time since 1992. They benefitted from an MVP season by Andrew McCutchen, yet he didn’t even lead his team in HR and RBI. The man who did that was Pedro Alvarez, who broke out in 2013 to the tune of 36 dingers, good enough to tie Paul Goldschmidt of the Arizona Diamondbacks for the league lead. He also tallied 100 RBI to trump McCutchen’s 84. Even so, McCutchen certainly deserved his MVP, ranking 4th in all of baseball in WAR with a sterling 8.2 mark. Only Mike Trout, Clayton Kershaw and Carlos Gomez had higher WAR numbers.

The Buccos were also boosted by Starling Marte, who had a breakout campaign in his second season. He ranked second on the team with 5.4 WAR, which means he is an All-Star level player. He finished with 12 homers, 10 triples, 26 doubles, 41 steals.

Besides Cutch, Alvarez and Marte, the Pirates got career seasons from backstop Russell Martin and home-town hero Neil Walker. Both exceeded their career high in WAR, which can happen when a team is clicking on all cylinders as the Pirates were last season.

Late in August, the Pirates acquired Marlon Byrd from the Mets. It was a great move as Byrd was electric in the 30 games he played during the tight pennant race.

But as good as the offense was for the Pirates, they only finished 8th in the NL in OPS with a .709 team mark, just .06 points higher than the .703 NL average. In other words, it was really the Pirates pitching that got them into the playoffs.

As a team, the Pirates’ hurlers allowed opponents to tally the NL’s lowest OPS against it at .650, well below the league average of .704. In fact, the next closest team was the LA Dodgers with a .670 mark. That’s what happens when you lead the league in fewest homers allowed. The Buccos pitching was simply superb.

Francisco Liriano. Image Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Led by A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano and rookie phenom Gerrit Cole, the Pirates seemed to receive upside surprises all around in their starting rotation.

Burnett led the team with 209 strikeouts and 18 Quality Starts. By all accounts he was a leader in the locker room as well. Many people figured Burnett was done after two poor seasons with the Yankees in 2010 and 2011. Naturally he reverted back to ace form for the Bucs in his two years there and even led the NL in 2013 in K/9 with a career high 9.8 mark.

Liriano had been ineffective since his heyday with the Twins in 2010. He even started the 2013 season on the 15-day disabled list after his contract was voided and re-worked due to failing his physical. Naturally he had a great season, with a team-high 3.0 pitching WAR and 17 quality starts.

Gerrit Cole lived up to the hype and then some as a rookie, with a 1.17 WHIP in 19 starts, 14 of which were Quality Starts. That’s fantastic for a rookie, far better than anyone had a right to expect.

Jeff Locke had a great first half followed by a terrible second half. Charlie Morton had a solid season and even Wandy Rodriguez contributed a 1.12 WHIP in 12 starts, 7 of which were Quality Starts.

As good as the rotation was, the bullpen may have been better. Led by closer Jason Grilli, who had 33 saves, a 1.06 WHIP and an eye-popping 13.32 K/9, the Pirates entire bullpen produced a 1.17 WHIP and topped the entire NL with a save percentage of 79%. The fearsome foursome of Mark Melancon, Justin Wilson, Tony Watson and Vin Mazzarro had over 70 innings each of stellar relief.

Sometimes a team just seems charmed and that describes the Pirates in 2013. Skipper Clint Hurdle won NL Manager of the Year and the vote wasn’t close. While he is clearly an excellent manager, it sure helps when most of your players breakout. It was refreshing as a baseball fan to see the Pirates achieve their first winning season in 21 years. A lot of Phillies fans were rooting for the Bucs to go all the way but it just wasn’t in the Cards.

Speaking of the Cards…the same day the Cardinals eliminated the Pirates in the NLDS, Starling Marte turned 24. The very next day Cutch turned 26. Neither one of them had a very good birthday thanks to the Redbirds hurlers, who held them to 1 run in each of the final two games to come back and take the series. Winning the MVP was a bitter-sweet end to a remarkable season but no one wants to hear they should feel proud after a loss. Like all true gamers, Cutch would have traded his MVP hardware gladly for a World Series trophy.

2014 Preview

Cutch is right in his prime so there’s no reason to believe he won’t have another MVP-caliber season. But will it be enough? His 2012 season was also MVP worthy; he finished 3rd in the voting while the Bucs finished below .500 (79-83) and 18 games out. Clearly the Pirates needed more than their MVP to reach the playoffs.

Key Additions

Edinson Volquez

Key Subtractions

A.J. Burnett
Marlon Byrd
Garrett Jones
Justin Morneau

Offense

Projected Lineup

  1. Starling Marte – LF
  2. Jordy Mercer – SS
  3. Andrew McCutchen – CF
  4. Pedro Alvarez – 3B
  5. Neil Walker – 2B
  6. Russell Martin – C
  7. Gaby Sanchez – 1B
  8. Jose Tabata – RF

Pitching and Defense

Projected Rotation

  1. Francisco Liriano
  2. Gerrit Cole
  3. Charlie Morton
  4. Edinson Volquez
  5. Wandy Rodriguez

Closer: Jason Grilli

The Pirates are going to have their work cut out for them in 2014. For one thing, they aren’t sneaking up on anyone anymore. Teams will take pride in beating them from game one. Also, they didn’t have a good off-season. Losing your ace always hurts. They also lost two professional hitters who helped down the stretch and in the playoffs in Byrd and Morneau. Losing the left-handed half of their first base platoon in Garrett Jones isn’t going to help as they really don’t have good options to replace him.

Edinson Volquez. Image Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Edinson Volquez has had a negative WAR in two of the past three seasons and in 2012 he led the league in walks. He’s not even close to the pitcher Burnett is.

Defensively, the Pirates relied on analytics to better position their fielders. Based on the results you’d have to say it was a huge success. They led the league in total chances as they employed shifts aggressively. There’s no reason to expect any different in 2014. Still, they didn’t have the best fielding percentage due to a high number of errors.

Best Case Scenario

Last season already represents the best case scenario for the Pirates. It’s not likely that everything comes up roses as it did last season. They were healthy in general and got career years from several unlikely sources.

But maybe, just maybe, having Gerrit Cole all season can help offset the loss of Burnett. Maybe, just maybe, Alvarez, Marte, and Walker will match or improve on their breakout numbers.

Worst Case Scenario

If one or two key players go down for the Pirates things could easily spiral down quickly for them. Already they are battling injuries in spring training. Clint Hurdle is an excellent manager but there’s only so much he can do if the players are injured or regress.

I think Alvarez will be pitched around much more this season than last, so I don’t see him matching last season’s numbers. I have more confidence in Marte duplicating his numbers than Alvarez.

Is Jordy Mercer really a playoff caliber SS? Defensively, it’s doubtful. Will Alvarez reduce his huge number of errors?

Projection

Phillies fans are all too familiar with how quickly the magic of one season can disappear without a trace the following year. Usually all it takes is two or three key injuries and a few down years for the whole team to scuffle.

The Bucs have several exciting young players, an excellent manager, and a strong farm with guys like outfielder Gregory Polanco, pitchers Jameson Taillon and Nick Kingham. Still I don’t see a repeat for Pittsburgh. I think the Pirates are due for some headwinds, much more than they faced last season. Not to say they got lucky because they scrapped and earned every win but luck was on their side.

I expect them to contend all season but still fall short of the playoffs in 2014.

Predicted Finish: 3rd place

Next Phillies Game View full schedule »
Tuesday, Sep 1616 Sep7:10at San Diego PadresBuy Tickets

Tags: Philadelphia Phillies

comments powered by Disqus