Pittsburgh Pirates preview: Will Jolly Roger flag be raised in 2013?

Andrew McCutchen takes a swing for the Pittsburgh Pirates during a spring training game.
Andrew McCutchen is getting better and better, but are the Pittsburgh Pirates? (Steve Mitchell/USA TODAY Sports)

We know things are looking good for the Pittsburgh Pirates when star center fielder Andrew McCutchen is landing on covers of video games. Although, exactly how good the Pirates look is subjective.

Last season, the Pirates teased its fan base into believing the streak of losing seasons would end after 19 years. Following an epic collapse in August and September, baseball’s worst losing streak turned 20.

The offseason was less than enchanting for the Pittsburgh Pirates. The only way to feel good about the Pirates is by riding shotgun with Marty McFly in a DeLorean. The additions of Francisco Liriano and Russell Martin will not make the Pirates favorites by any means. Then again, stud prospect Starling Marte will be with the club for an entire season.

Pittsburgh Pirates position players

For the Pirates, the potential for relevancy in the National League begins with their outfield. McCutchen, Marte, Travis Snider and Jose Tabata are all 26 years old or younger. Marte, the 2011 Eastern League Rookie of the Year, possesses the most talent among the latter three, but he must improve his hitting against right-handed pitching. Snider and Tabata are likely to platoon in right field. Neither has yet lived up to his projected ability.

Second baseman Neil Walker is one or the better middle infielders in baseball. The 27-year-old had a breakout campaign in 2012 by hitting .280 with 14 HR and 69 RBI. Joining him in the middle of the diamond is the less-than-tantalizing Clint Barmes.

Gaby Sanchez and Garrett Jones are expected to platoon at first base. An All-Star in 2011, Sanchez has disappointed since last spring. However, he does provide a better bat versus lefties than Jones. In regard to Jones, the 27 HR from a year ago are likely an aberration. While his strikeout totals have declined each of the past two seasons, the 32-year-old is expected to drift back to normalcy with less than 23 HR and 80 RBI in 2013. Expect to see Jones carry most of the weight in the first-base platoon.

Martin was brought in to be the everyday catcher, not because of his bat but because of his defensive makeup. He is one of the best pitch framers in baseball. Martin’s numbers may suggest he is getting better with time, but the 30-year-old is expected to regress in 2013. He will be backed up by the heavy-swinging Michael McKenry.

Finally, the biggest question mark: What will third baseman Pedro Alvarez do in 2013? At just 26 years old, Alvarez had been considered a mild disappointment until his breakout season last year. It may be a case where Alvarez was rushed to the majors a year or two early. With 30 HR and 85 RBI last year, it is clear Alvarez has the potential to knock a dinger out of the park in each plate appearance. On the other hand, Alvarez must improve on his dismal batting average and strikeout percentage. If he can improve in the latter two aspects, he could develop into an all-star third baseman for years to come.

Pittsburgh Pirates pitching

The current Buccos starting rotation is A.J. Burnett, Wandy Rodriguez, James McDonald and Jeff Locke. The battle for the fifth and final spot comes down to Jonathan Sanchez and Kyle McPherson. Liriano and Jeff Karstens are both doubtful for the start of the season. With that in mind, Sanchez is unlikely to stick in Pittsburgh. He is not guaranteed a spot in the rotation and will not accept a triple-A assignment.

After surprising the masses with spectacular pitching for most of the season last year, Burnett and McDonald’s arms appeared to show signs of wear. For the Pirates to remain at or near the peak of the NL Central, they will need such extraordinary performances again in 2013. Rodriguez is an aging pitcher who will be hit or miss while Locke is marginal at best.

The bullpen has a mixed bag of expectations as well. After trading closer Joel Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox, Jason Grilli will now be depended on in the ninth inning. He possesses the ability to be a good closer but at 36-years-old is not the long-term solution.

Mark Melancon came to the Steel City in the trade for Hanrahan. He will serve as the setup man to Grilli. Tony Watson, Jared Hughes, Jeanmar Gomez, Chris Leroux and Justin Wilson round out Pittsburgh’s bullpen.

Pittsburgh Pirates opening day lineup

  1. Starling Marte LF
  2. Neil Walker 2B
  3. Andrew McCutchen CF
  4. Pedro Alvarez 3B
  5. Garrett Jones 1B
  6. Russell Martin C
  7. Travis Snider RF
  8. Clint Barmes SS

Pittsburgh Pirates prospect watch

The Pittsburgh Pirates are full of excitement over their top two prospects Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon. Both pitchers are rated as top prospects in all of baseball. Cole and Taillon have ace potential as well.

Cole has a three-pitch repertoire with a fastball that cruises in the high 90s. While he still has to work on his command and control, there is little more he can do at the minor-league level. Cole will debut with the Pirates at some point in 2013. Many expect it to be as soon as late May.

Taillon is just as elite as Cole in terms of potential. However, Taillon is not expected to see the majors until late 2013 at the earliest. Taillon clocks in with an upper-90s fastball. He has the ability to get hitters out with his menacing curveball. Command and control issues continue to linger, but it’s only a matter of time until Taillon walks onto the field at PNC Park.


Pittsburgh Pirates fans were getting exctied to raise the Jolly Roger last season. With four months of competitive baseball, the Buccos were in competition with the St. Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds for the top spot in the NL Central. Naturally, many would suggest things should only get better. Unfortunately, 2013 appears to be a season where the Pirates have to take one step backwards in order to move two steps forward.

The rotation is in flux. Simply put, Burnett, McDonald and company exceeded expectations last year. That means they overachieved. While McDonald still has room to grow into a formidable number-three or number-four starter, Burnett is one year older. Trusting the rotation to hold things down for the Pirates offense would be foolish.

McCutchen is likely to post MVP-like numbers again. However, Walker, Alvarez and Marte will need to establish themselves as potent threats on a daily basis. Hitting for a better average will go along way in keeping the Pittsburgh Pirates competitive. The 79 wins last season was the most for any Pirates club since 1997. Expect a slight regression in 2013.

While the Pittsburgh Pirates could stun some people and keep things interesting, they will be out of the playoff picture by the end of July.

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