Pittsburgh Pirates GM Neal Huntington has quietly built the Pirates into a dark horse contender with home grown talent and a couple of shrewd acquisitions for veteran pitchers. While this may not be enough to get them over the hump this season, the Pirates' window will be opening soon.
On the surface, the Pirates' 79-83 record in 2012 was nothing more than the franchise's 20th consecutive losing season. Looking deeper, however, there is reason for Pirates fans to be optimistic in 2013 -- well, besides the usual "hey, we're in first for a day" after beating the Chicago Cubs on Opening Day. The Pirates were a season-high 16 games over .500 as late as August 8th before finishing just 16-37. With a young core of talent, including a couple of electric arms in the high levels of the minor leagues, the Pirates have a long, healthy window open to position themselves for contention in the National League.
Manager: Clint Hurdle (3rd year)
2012 record: 79-83, 4th in NL Central
SB Nation blog: Bucs Dugout
Other Pirates coverage: Where Have You Gone Andy Van Slyke?
First Series vs. Tigers: May 27-28 @ Comerica Park
After a decent rookie season in 2012, 24 year old left fielder Starling Marte is slated to be the Pirates' leadoff hitter in 2013. Marte struggled against right-handed pitching last year, but absolutely mashed lefties at a .318/.360/.682 clip. He has decent speed, but was thrown out in eight of 13 steal attempts. His minor league numbers range from great to excellent, and he is already an above-average defender (more on that below).
After Marte are four hitters that all had breakout seasons in 2012. Second baseman Neil Walker and all-world center fielder Andrew McCutchen are likely to repeat said seasons in 2013. First baseman Garrett Jones and third baseman Pedro Alvarez, on the other hand, strike out a bit too much for my liking. Alvarez is a "three true outcomes" kind of guy, and should come close to last year's 30 home runs and 85 RBI. Jones, on the other hand, seems to be a random power spike one-year wonder. His career .466 slugging percentage is nothing to sneeze at, and he could be a decent middle-order bat if he can prove that last year's career-low 6.4% walk rate was just a fluke.
The Pirates signed catcher Russell Martin during the offseason in hopes that he will be an offensive upgrade over now-departed backstop Rod Barajas. The good news? That shouldn't be too difficult after Barajas hit just .206/.283/.343 in 104 games last year. Backup Michael McKenry might not be starter material, but he had good numbers against lefties last year.
Outfielders Travis Snider, Gaby Sanchez, Jerry Sands, Alex Presley, and Jose Tabata will all be competing for playing time in right field (as well as the occasional game at first base) during Spring Training. Multiple projection systems like Snider as a breakout candidate, while others are skeptical. Sanchez mashes lefties but can't hit squat against righties, Tabata can't hit squat against either, and I've been irrationally high on Sands' potential since his days in the Los Angeles Dodgers' farm system.
Clint Barmes is the shortstop and will bat 8th. He is in the lineup for his glove, as evident by his .583 OPS last season. No-hitter thief Josh Harrison will likely get playing time in a utility role.
Last year, A.J. Burnett had the resurgence that everyone predicted but no one really believed prior to the season, pitching his way to a 16-10 record and 3.51 ERA/3.52 FIP/3.40 xFIP. He cut his walk rate and induced more ground balls, which either means he has changed his approach or is due for some serious regression in 2013. I'm inclined to believe the former, given Burnett's success with similar peripherals early in his career.
Remember when people wanted to trade Rick Porcello for left-hander Wandy Rodriguez? Well, some things never change -- the people trying to trade Porcello, that is. Wandy's strikeout rate dipped considerably in 2012, but he still had success, amassing a 5-4 record and 3.72 ERA after being traded to the Pirates. Wandy attacked hitters more often in 2012, cutting his walk rate to just 2.45 batters per 9 innings. Look for him to do so again in 2013, especially within the pitcher-friendly confines of PNC Park.
James McDonald was your prototypical Jekyll-and-Hyde pitcher in 2012, putting together an excellent first half before collapsing down the stretch, He was 9-3 with a 2.37 ERA in the first half, striking out nearly a batter per inning in the process. After the All-Star Break, the strikeouts decreased, the walks started piling up, and hits started falling in -- his BABIP went from .245 in the first half to .315 in the second half -- leading to a 3-5 record and 7.52 ERA.
Rounding out the rotation will be right-hander Jeff Karstens and lefty Francisco Liriano. Karstens would be considered an "innings eater" if he could stay healthy. The problem? He can't, and he's already battling shoulder soreness this spring. Liriano signed a two year contract with the Pirates, but is questionable for the start of the season after an injury that will remind Tigers fans of the immortal Joel Zumaya.
Francisco Liriano said he broke his arm when he slammed it against a door, trying to startle his kids Christmas Day. #Pirates— Michael Sanserino (@msanserino) February 11, 2013
Speaking of former Tigers relievers, Jason Grilli will man the closer role for the Bucs now that Joel Hanrahan is in Boston. Grilli was just 1-6 last year, but had an excellent 2.91 ERA/2.80 FIP/2.68 xFIP and 90 strikeouts in 58 2/3 innings.
Things the Tigers need to know before playing Pittsburgh
DON'T RUN ON STARLING MARTE
Actual quote from Arizona's announcers: "I don't think I've ever seen anyone get thrown out by that much."
But seriously. Don't run on Starling Marte.
Spring Training storylines
The Pirates have been one of the more boring teams to read about so far this spring, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The main draw for Pirates fans thus far has been the development of top young talents Starling Marte, Gerrit Cole, and Jameson Taillon. Marte, the rocket-armed left fielder featured above, is probably the only one of this trio who is likely to head north with the big league club, but all three have been impressive. Marte is hitting a robust .375/.434/.542 through ten games, while Cole and Taillon -- a pair of hard-throwing right-handed pitchers -- have both held their own. Taillon was particularly impressive in the World Baseball Classic, holding the USA to just one earned run in four innings in an elimination game on Sunday.
Some Tigers fans have been interested in the progress of Brandon Inge, who signed a minor league deal with the Bucs just before Grapefruit League games began. In 20 at bats, Inge has three singles and a walk. The ROOT Sports announcers -- the Pirates' equivalent of Mario and Rod -- were complimentary of Inge and lauded his veteran presence on the spring roster. That's about all he has going for him, however, as the other infielders on the roster are younger, healthier, and better.
Player to watch: Andrew McCutchen
As McCutchen went in 2012, so did the Pirates. Through the team's first 110 games, he hit a scorching .370/.430/.625 and the Pirates were 16 games over .500. During the last 52 games, McCutchen hit just .240/.341/.408 and struck out 48 times in 226 plate appearances. Not only did this cold finish probably cost him the NL MVP, it was a big reason why the team finished 16-37 and missed the playoffs for a 20th consecutive year. Whichever McCutchen shows up in 2013 will go a long way in determining how close the Pirates come to snapping that streak.
While it's hard to bet against McCutchen -- who is easily the biggest talent these Pirates have seen since some guy named Bonds -- I don't think Pittsburgh's window is open quite yet. The Cincinnati Reds are poised for a year or two (if not more) at the top of the division with a stacked roster, while the St. Louis Cardinals have more talent waiting in the minors. However, if the Pirates' youth -- Cole and Taillon, in particular -- can develop into major league caliber talent, there could be playoff baseball in Pittsburgh before we expect it.