Even after their first winning season and playoff appearance since 1992, the Pittsburgh Pirates have plenty to prove in 2014, especially to those doubting the Bucs as NL Central contenders. At first glance, the doubters appear to have an edge given the Pirates spent a measly $7 million during the offseason on two free agents — starter Edinson Volquez (one year, $5 million) and re-signing-shortstop Clint Barmes (one year, $2 million). Yawn.
GM Neal Huntington struck gold over the past two years with starting pitcher reclamation projects — the now-departed A.J. Burnett posted a 26-21 record and 3.41 ERA in 393.1 innings over two seasons, and Francisco Liriano became the unexpected ace last season with a 16-8 record and 3.02 ERA — but is it realistic to expect lightning to strike a third time with Volquez? If spring stats are any indication, Huntington’s mojo may be fading — the 30-year-old Volquez is 0-2 in two starts, giving up 14 hits and 11 earned runs in only nine innings.
Following Burnett out of town were rent-a-players Justin Morneau and Marlon Byrd, along with Garrett Jones, who tallied 100 homers with the Pirates over the past five years. So, with big names leaving and no-names coming in, what can Pirates fans get excited about in 2014?
Plenty. For starters, 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen, emerging superstar Starling Marte, 2013 rookie sensation Gerrit Cole, and the expected emergence of a handful of prospects, including Jameson Taillon and Gregory Polanco.
NL Manager of the Year Clint Hurdle guided the Pirates from 79-83 in 2012 to 94-68 record last season, and the big jump had nothing to do with an offensive outburst. The Pirates scored 651 runs in 2012 and dropped to 634 last year, ninth in the NL. The 15-game improvement had everything to do with pitching — runs against dropped from 674 in 2012 to 577 a year ago, third best in the NL.
If the Pirates expect to compete in the postseason this year, the offense can’t waver. It’s a safe bet center fielder McCutchen will replicate his .317, 21 HR, 84 RBI and 27 stolen bases from last year. But can third baseman Pedro Alvarez duplicate his monster season of 36 home runs and 100 RBI? With Jones and Morneau gone, Hurdle is searching high and low for Gaby Sanchez’s platoon partner at first base. Andrew Lambo and Chris McGuiness have disappointed, but journeyman Travis Ishikawa has been on fire recently and could be a surprise to break camp on the 25-man roster.
Russell Martin, a free-agent steal last year, will once again start behind the plate. Chris Stewart was acquired from the New York Yankees in the offseason to back up Martin, but he’s on the DL four to six weeks following knee surgery earlier this week. Barring a trade to acquire a catcher, Tony Sanchez should move into the backup role.
The Pirates hope second baseman Neil Walker rebounds from an injury-plagued season where his average dropped nearly 30 points (.280 to .251). A healthy Walker significantly improves the Bucs’ ability to score runs. His partner up the middle this year, Jordy Mercer, takes over the reigns at shortstop after playing Barmes’ understudy last season.
Left-fielder Marte has all the tools to be a great leadoff hitter, especially after last year’s strong rookie season, where he tallied 26 doubles, 10 triples, 41 stolen bases and a slash line of .280/.343/.441. The biggest question mark is right field, where frontline candidates Jose Tabata and Travis Snider have been mentioned in recent days as trade pieces, leaving Jaff Decker and Lambo, who hit 32 home runs and knocked in 99 last year in the minors, as possibilities. Regardless of who starts the season in right, expect Polanco (see below) to end the season there.
The starting rotation is strong at the top. Liriano returns as the ace after posting his best ERA since 2006. He was lights-out at home, too, with an 8-1 record and 1.47 ERA in 11 starts. No. 2 Cole had an outstanding rookie season, going 10-7 with a 3.22 ERA and 100 strikeouts in 117.1 innings, and he’s on track to be the Pirates ace for years to come.
Charlie Morton, who signed a three-year extension after posting a 7-4 season, is in line for the third spot in the rotation, while Wandy Rodriguez should nail down the fourth spot. Coming off a forearm injury that hampered him in 2013, Rodriguez has been pain free this spring and is regaining his fastball velocity. Jeff Locke will make his way back into the rotation by the end of April after suffering some right-side discomfort in his only start this spring. Despite Volquez’s struggles, he may still break camp as the No. 5 starter.
All-Stars Mark Melancon, who saved 16 games, had a WHIP of 0.96 and had 70 strikeouts in 71 innings, and closer Jason Grilli, who had 27 saves until a July forearm injury shut him down for most of the second half, anchor the bullpen again this year. If he stays healthy, expect Grilli to post 35-40 saves in 2014.
Opening day lineup
1. Starling Marte, LF
2. Jordy Mercer, SS
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
5. Neil Walker, 2B
6. Gaby Sanchez, 1B
7. Jose Tabata/Travis Snyder, RF
8. Russell Martin, C
Polanco has all the tools to become a major league outfielder. At three minor league levels last season, he slashed .285/.356/.434, hit 12 homers, drove in 71 runs and stole 38 bases. Even though his path to the majors is blocked by McCutchen in center, Polanco will slide over to right and join the bigs before too long.
All eyes are on 2010 first-round pick Taillon, who should make the jump to the rotation by midseason. Fans have been waiting for the dynamic duo of Cole and Taillon to pitch together in the rotation, and the countdown has officially started. Keep an eye on Tyler Glasnow, who won nine games in Low-A with a 13.3 K/9, and Nick Kingham, who pitched well in two levels last year. A power rotation of Cole, Taillon, Glasnow and Kingham may arrive in Pittsburgh within the next few years.
Pittsburgh’s success or failure lands squarely on the shoulders of the rotation. They may sputter at the outset, but the addition of Taillon at the midway point should give the Pirates a solid 1-2-3 punch, along with Liriano and Cole, heading down the stretch. They may not be strong enough to overtake the Cardinals and win the NL Central, but a battle with the Reds for a wild-card spot is definitely within reach.