It took 21 years, but the Pittsburgh Pirates' rebuilding plan finally paid off in a big way last season. The team made the postseason for the first time since 1992, took St. Louis to five games in the National League Division Series and Andrew McCutchen was named NL MVP.
An all-around outstanding year for a city that has been yearning to cheer for its baseball team. The good news is things are actually going to get better very soon.
Gone are the days of drafting Bryan Bullington with the first overall pick in the draft. Here are the times when the Pirates boast one of the best players in baseball, an ace starting pitcher in the making and a terrific farm system that will churn out several future stars in the next two years.
Optimism isn't normal around the Pirates, but the tide is turning. The only negative thing you can say about them right now is they have to play in the same division as the St. Louis Cardinals, though that could turn into one of the best rivalries in baseball very soon, if it isn't already.
Heading into spring training, here are the things the Pirates have done to make themselves better in 2014 and the storylines to follow when the exhibition games start.
OF Chris Dickerson (Free Agent), OF Jaff Decker (Trade with San Diego Padres) RHP Edinson Volquez (Free Agent), 1B Chris McGuiness (Trade with Texas Rangers), C Chris Stewart (Trade with New York Yankees)
C John Buck (Free Agent), C Michael McKenry (Free Agent) RHP A.J. Burnett (Free Agent), OF Marlon Byrd (Free Agent), RHP Kyle Farnsworth (Free Agent), 1B Garrett Jones (Free Agent), RHP Jeff Karstens (Free Agent), RHP James McDonald (Free Agent), 1B Justin Morneau (Free Agent), OF Felix Pie (Free Agent), RHP Miles Mikolas (Traded to Texas)
As you would expect for a team with a budding farm system and tight financial restrictions, the Pirates were very quiet this offseason. Their biggest addition, financially speaking, is right-handed pitcher Edinson Volquez, who signed for $5 million.
Acquiring Chris Stewart from New York gives Pittsburgh a solid backup to have behind Russell Martin, though it was a peculiar deal because Tony Sanchez seems ready to take over as the No. 2 catcher in the big leagues.
Losing Marlon Byrd won't have much of an impact on the lineup. He had one of the most unexpected, bounce-back seasons in recent memory, slugging over .500 for the first time in his career.
He's going to be 37 years old in 2014 and had the highest batting average on balls in play despite walking less and striking out more than his career marks.
The big fish still left to fry is A.J. Burnett, who will pitch in 2014 after teasing retirement. There was a time when it seemed the only team he would play for was Pittsburgh, but Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reports the right-hander is open to testing the market.
The Pirates are about as healthy as a team can be heading into spring training. They don't have any players listed as being injured or recovering from surgery last season.
Kyle McPherson, a right-hander who made 10 appearances for the team in 2012, pitched two games in Triple-A last year before undergoing Tommy John surgery in June. He became a free agent after the Pirates didn't offer him a contract.
That's about the only thing that went wrong for the Pirates in 2013. They are in great shape heading into camp and are only going to get stronger thanks to their strong minor league system.
Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Coaching Staff (Seasons with Team)
|Manager: Clint Hurdle (4th season)|
|Hitting Coach: Jeff Branson (12th season)|
|Pitching Coach: Ray Searage (12th season)|
|First Base Coach: Rick Sofield (2nd season)|
|Third Base Coach: Nick Leyva (4th season)|
|Bench Coach: Jeff Banister (28th season)|
|Bullpen Coach: Euclides Rojas (4th season)|
Despite collapsing in the second half of 2011 and 2012, Clint Hurdle is the first manager since Lloyd McClendon (2002-04) to have three consecutive seasons with at least 72 wins. Pittsburgh's postseason run in 2013 led to Hurdle being named NL Manager of the Year.
Even though we can criticize some of Hurdle's in-game tactics (sacrificing outs early in games), a huge part of managing in the big leagues is managing people. Hurdle clearly understands that better than most, leading to three top-10 Manager of the Year finishes since 2007.
Another thing that makes Hurdle so effective is the consistency on his staff. Four of the six coaches have been in Pittsburgh for the duration of his tenure, while Jeff Branson has provided some stability as hitting coach.
The Pirates are still building their lineup around McCutchen, Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez, so there are going to be rough patches. Overall, though, Branson has found a formula that works for this particular group.
Ray Searage is one of the best pitching coaches in the business. He helped resurrect the careers of Burnett and Francisco Liriano, helped turn Charlie Morton into a ground-ball machine and worked wonders with Gerrit Cole in the three months he was in the big leagues.
Given those success stories, you can understand why Volquez decided to sign with Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh Pirates' Projected 2014 Lineup
|1.Starling Marte, LF|
|2. Clint Barmes, 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|
|Jordy Mercer, IF|
|Chris Stewart, C|
|Josh Harrison, IF/OF|
|Andrew Lambo, 1B/OF|
|Travis Snider, OF|
Despite some solid individual pieces, as a whole, Pittsburgh's lineup lacks punch. This group finished 14th in home runs, 16th in slugging percentage, 17th in on-base percentage, 20th in runs scored and 22nd in batting average.
McCutchen is the star of the group, being one of only four players in baseball to post a .300/.400/.500 slash line in 2013. Pedro Alvarez still doesn't get on base (.296 OBP in 2013), but he did find a new level of power by hitting 36 homers last season.
Marte strikes me as a regression candidate in 2014. He put together an impressive .280/.343/.441 line in 135 games last season, but he had a 138-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
An optimist will note that Marte did walk 11 times in 142 at-bats after the All-Star break, though you should also point out that he struck out 49 times (35 percent) during that span.
Russell Martin hits for power, even if he offers nothing in the way of average. His value behind the plate, combined with above-average pop, makes him one of the best catchers in baseball.
Gaby Sanchez is the key for Pittsburgh's lineup this season. He's not a typical first baseman, lacking the power profile for the position, but his .361 on-base percentage last season would have ranked 14th in the NL if he had enough at-bats to qualify for the batting title.
They need guys who can get on base, especially ahead of McCutchen, so they can get out of the bottom half of the league in runs scored.
Pittsburgh Pirates Projected 2014 Rotation
|No. 1 Gerrit Cole, RHP|
|No. 2 Francisco Liriano, LHP|
|No. 3 Charlie Morton, RHP|
|No. 4 Wandy Rodriguez, LHP|
|No. 5 Edinson Volquez, RHP|
Getting some resolution to the Burnett situation would completely change this group. Everyone would slide back a spot, with Volquez moving to the bullpen where he belongs.
As Cliff Corcoran of Sports Illustrated noted, Burnett may not be a traditional No. 1, but he served an integral role in Pittsburgh.
Burnett is no ace, but he has been the anchor of the Pirates’ rotation over the last two years, averaging 197 innings pitched while striking out nearly a man per inning and posting a 107 ERA+ in both seasons.
The good news is if Burnett goes somewhere else, the Pirates will get by because of Cole. The young right-hander dominated down the stretch last season, posting a 1.69 ERA with 39 strikeouts in 32 September innings, and he dazzled in October with a 2.45 ERA in 11 innings.
Liriano proved to be a risk worth taking last season, finishing ninth in NL Cy Young voting and posting the second highest ERA+ mark of his career (117). Unfortunately, he only threw 161 innings, marking the fourth time in five years he's failed to break the 170-inning barrier.
With the exception of Cole, Morton might be the star of this group. He's not going to dazzle in the way someone like Liriano will, but his ability to generate ground balls is a gift. Morton had a 62.9 percent ground-ball rate last season and has a 54.8 percent mark for his career.
Wandy Rodriguez and Volquez just need to stay healthy, throw strikes and not embarrass themselves until top prospect Jameson Taillon is ready for the big leagues.
Pittsburgh Pirates Projected 2014 Bullpen
|Closer: Jason Grilli, RHP|
|Setup: Mark Melancon, RHP|
|Setup: Tony Watson, LHP|
|Reliever: Bryan Morris, RHP|
|Reliever: Justin Wilson, LHP|
|Reliever: Vin Mazzaro, RHP|
|Reliever: Stolmy Pimentel, RHP|
The Pirates struck gold with Boston castoff Mark Melancon last season, paying just over $500,000 for a 1.39 ERA, 70 strikeouts, 60 hits and just eight walks in 71 innings.
In fact, the entire bullpen was brilliant in 2013, posting the third-lowest ERA (2.89) and fifth-lowest batting average against (.229). Most of the key players will return with Stolmy Pimentel being the new fish.
One trait this group doesn't feature is overpowering pitchers. Melancon and Jason Grilli are going to miss bats, but Vin Mazzaro (5.6 strikeouts per nine innings), Justin Wilson (7.2) and Tony Watson (6.8) find a lot of wood on the mound.
The reason those three are so effective, Mazzaro and Wilson especially, is their ability to generate ground balls. Mazzaro had a 52.2 percent ground-ball rate last season while Wilson was a little better at 53 percent.
Most of these pitchers are able to get hitters from both sides out. Melancon destroyed left-handed hitters in 2013 (.357 OPS); right-handed hitters had a .582 OPS against Watson; Mazzaro was equally effective against lefties (.616 OPS) as he was righties (.637).
Grilli had one of the widest splits with a .707 OPS against left-handed hitters in 2013, yet he still struck them out 32 times in 86 at-bats.
This is a good, deep unit that gives Hurdle many options because of how capable they are against hitters from both sides of the plate.
Jameson Taillon, RHP
In a system stacked with high-end pitching prospects, it may be hard to stand out. Most pitchers aren't Taillon, a 6'6", 235-pound right-hander with a mid-90s fastball and a knockout curveball.
Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com listed all of Taillon's strengths and what makes the young Texas kid such a highly regarded pitcher.
Taillon can crank it up and touch the mid-90s with his fastball, and it has plenty of sink when he keeps it down in the strike zone. He combines it with a very good power curve and a changeup that, while it's his third pitch, has a chance to be above-average. That's three above-average offerings coming from a durable 6-foot-6 frame, all thrown with confidence and plenty of poise on the mound. Sounds like a front-line starter to me.
Taillon has just 37 innings at Triple-A, so more seasoning in the minors is necessary before he joins Cole at the top of the MLB rotation. He's going to get his chance against big league hitters in spring training which will give him a chance to work on missing barrels at a better rate.
Gregory Polanco, OF
Gregory Polanco, the top prospect in the system, will join Taillon in Indianapolis for a few months this season. He's a true four-tool talent, only lacking in the hitting department thanks to a long swing.
He's a natural center fielder who will end up playing right field when the Pirates bring him up because that McCutchen guy is pretty good.
Tony Sanchez, C
Sanchez has never been able to duplicate his breakout 2010 season, when Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein ranked him second in the system and said he had the potential to be "a special defensive player."
His hit tool has never developed enough, while the defense isn't what it once was, but he's got enough skill to carve out a career as a backup. Stewart is blocking his path, but Martin will be a free agent after the season, leaving a void that someone will have to fill.
Stolmy Pimentel, RHP
A big, powerful right-hander, Pimentel has been groomed as a starter in the minors, but he has never thrown enough strikes to have value in the big leagues.
His ability to pump fastballs in the mid 90s with a hard slider makes him an ideal candidate to move to the bullpen. He threw five games in relief for the Pirates last season, recording nine strikeouts against just two walks in 9.1 innings.
Gerrit Cole, RHP
I may be cheating with this pick, since everyone knows who Cole is after his performance in the postseason and the fact he was the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft. It's a testament to how good he already is and how much better he can get that he makes this particular list.
As Thomas Harding of MLB.com notes, Hurdle raved about Cole after the rookie took a loss in Game 5 of the NLDS against St. Louis last October.
I thought he pitched a very professional game. To get that opportunity to go out there, attack hitters -- the breaking ball caught too much of the plate. But the young man took another step forward, another experience that's going to put him in a better place down the road.
Cole's arm is on its way to becoming a weapon of mass destruction. He averaged 96.1 mph with the fastball and 89.1 mph with his slider—both would have ranked in the top two of baseball if he had enough innings to qualify for the ERA title.
Just 23 years old, Cole is going to go from an intriguing rookie to a legitimate Cy Young contender.
Jordy Mercer, IF
If the choice for starting shortstop is Barmes or Mercer, conventional wisdom would tell you to take the latter because he's seven years younger and Barmes has a career line of .246/.294/.383.
Mercer played well for the Pirates in 2013, hitting .285/.336/.435 in 103 games. He's just 27 years old and, while he's unlikely to duplicate that offensive performance again, he has more power than Barmes with a solid glove capable of handling shortstop.
"I'm a fan. If the way things would play out and in 2014, comes to spring training, he could very well be the guy to get the shot to play at shortstop."
With the offensive bar so low at shortstop, Mercer doesn't have to do much to be more valuable than Barmes. He's not going to be a star, but a cheap middle-of-the-diamond player who's adequate on both sides of the ball is a bargain.
No. 5 Starter: Edinson Volquez vs. Jeff Locke
The battle for the final spot in the rotation could be moot if the Pirates re-sign Burnett. Everyone else in the rotation would just move back a slot, pushing Volquez and Locke to the bullpen.
Pittsburgh signed Volquez with the intention of making him a starter again, though that will really test the mettle of Searage.
Of course, Locke isn't exactly beating down the door to be a starting pitcher. After somehow tricking people into thinking he was a quality arm who deserved to be an All-Star in the first half of 2013, the 26-year-old imploded in the second half with a 6.12 ERA and didn't make an appearance in the postseason.
If this actually turns into a race, I guess Volquez would be the man to beat because he at least has the ability to miss bats even though he has no idea where the ball is going when it leaves the right hand.
Starting Shortstop: Clint Barmes vs. Jordy Mercer
All things being equal, Mercer would be given a fair chance to win the starting shortstop gig in 2014.
Unfortunately, Hurdle had the choice between Barmes and Mercer last season and stuck with the veteran for most of the year.
Why will things be different in 2014?
Odds are they won't be. Hurdle strikes me as a very loyal manager who will keep giving veterans opportunities long after their time has passed. Mercer deserves a chance to prove himself as a starter for this team, but Barmes has the inside track on the job in spring training.
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