2014 Team Preview: Are the Pittsburgh Pirates for real, or was 2013 just fantasy?

Jared Wickerham

Are the Pirates really a 94 win team? After returning largely the same roster, we will get our answer in 2014.

We have seen this story before. Sure, they are not usually quite as dramatic as the Pirates' storybook 2013 season punctuated by their first playoff appearance since 1992, but they have happened before. The Pirates rode their pitching staff all the way to a 94 win season, finishing with a +57 run differential. They got production from unexpected places, especially from starting pitchers Francisco Liriano, Jeff Locke, and Charlie Morton. They lived and died by the home run, tying for third place in the National League with 161 bombs. The question is not whether they can do it again, because that is nearly impossible. However, can they see enough improvement from other areas -- namely, the young talent on the roster -- to reach the postseason again in 2014?

Manager: Clint Hurdle (4th year)

2013 record: 94-68, 2nd in NL Central

SB Nation blog: Bucs Dugout

Other Pirates coverage: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Where Have You Gone Andy Van Slyke?

First series vs. Tigers: August 11-12 @ PNC Park

Lineup

Last year, I hedged my bets when offering up a prediction on the Pirates' 2013 season.

Whichever McCutchen shows up in 2013 will go a long way in determining how close the Pirates come to snapping that streak.

Well, that turned out nicely. Andrew McCutchen won his first MVP award by hitting .317/.404/.508 with 21 home runs, 84 RBI, and 27 stolen baes while playing above average defense in center field. It was his second consecutive .300/.400/.500 season and his third straight year with at least 20 homers and 20 steals. He made $4.5 million. On his left is the poor man's version of him, Starling Marte. Marte's home run power has not arrived yet, but he still smacked 26 doubles and 10 triples in 566 plate appearances. Like Austin Jackson, he strikes out too much for a leadoff hitter. Also like Austin Jackson, he is good enough to make the strikeouts not matter. Whoever starts the season in right field -- Jose Tabata and Travis Ishikawa are possibilities -- is a place holder for Gregory Polanco, another center field prospect who runs like a deer and has massive power potential.

Russell Martin proved he was worth his weight in gold in 2013, posting a 4.1 WAR season after the New York Yankees let him walk via free agency. Martin hit .226/.327/.377 with 15 home runs, but his best work was done managing the pitching staff, which ranked among the best in baseball. He threw out 40% of baserunners, well above the league average of 28%. Chris Stewart will likely be the backup catcher after the Pirates made the effort to trade for him during the offseason, but Tony Sanchez, a former top 100 prospect, looks to be the backstop of the future in Pittsburgh. Sanchez has impressed so far in Spring Training, so it will be interesting to see if he forces his way into the lineup in 2014.

One thing working in Sanchez's favor is the Pirates' iffy situation at first base. Gaby Sanchez and Garrett Jones saw most of the playing time there in 2013, along with trade acquisition Justin Morneau. Jones and Morneau are both gone, leaving the lefty-mashing Sanchez without a platoon partner. Andrew Lambo may get a shot at the job after moving away from the crowded outfield, but early reports suggest that the Bucs may just let Sanchez have the job for himself. Next to Sanchez/Lambo/someone else will be second baseman Neil Walker. Hey, did you hear that Walker is Don Kelly's brother-in-law?

Jordy Mercer and Clint Barmes formed a surprisingly effective shortstop platoon last year. Unfortunately, no one has found a way to combine Mercer's bat and Barmes' glove into one human. Barmes was a replacement level player thanks to his .558 OPS, while Mercer put up a solid .333 wOBA and 113 wRC+ in 365 plate appearances. The Pirates picked up third baseman Brent Morel off waivers earlier this week, but don't expect him to get much playing time (if any). Pedro Alvarez saw his batting average and walk rate drop in 2013, but his 36 home runs and 100 RBI led the team. He has struck out in 30% of his plate appearances in every big league season of his career.

Rotation

The Pirates' starting staff tallied a 3.50 ERA and a 3.46 FIP last season, both ranking in the top five in baseball. If you take that at face value, the Pirates' lack of activity during the offseason makes sense. However, they rested on their laurels with A.J. Burnett, and it costed them dearly when Burnett signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. Now, the Pirates are relying on a lot of ifs in 2014. At the top of the rotation, Gerrit Cole will look to begin his sophomore season like he ended 2013. He allowed nine runs with 49 strikeouts and 12 walks in his last 43 innings of the season (including the playoffs). He was also given the ball for the decisive Game 5 of the ALDS over Burnett, a decision that may have ultimately led to Burnett's departure.

Riskier still than relying on Cole for ace-level production is the hope that Francisco Liriano can put up above average numbers in back-to-back seasons for the first time in his career. He finally cut his walk rate down to a respectable level, issuing 3.52 walks per nine innings. He also benefited from some serious home cooking; Liriano allowed just two home runs at PNC Park in 73 2/3 innings. The next risky move? Assuming that lefty Wandy Rodriguez will stay healthy. He landed on the disabled list with elbow issues for the second time in three years, and only pitched 62 2/3 innings in 2013. Neither are good signs for a 35 year old pitcher with nearly 1500 big league innings under his belt.

One of the keys to the Pirates' success in 2013 was the excellent production they got out of the back end of their rotation. Eight players combined to make 75 starts, and they allowed a 3.87 ERA as a group. Charlie Morton and Jeff Locke combined to make 50 of those starts, and they will be among the favorites to round out the rotation at the start of the season. Locke was an All-Star after a spectacular first half, but a back injury limited him throughout the rest of the season. His ERA splits -- 2.15 in the first half, 6.12 after the All-Star break -- speak volumes, though Locke was due for a bit of regression eventually. Morton posted a 3.26 ERA and 3.60 FIP in 116 innings coming off of Tommy John surgery. Expect more of the same -- ground balls, ground balls, and more ground balls -- in 2014. Edinson Volquez has been awful since 2008, but that didn't stop the Pirates from signing him for $5 million.

One of the more interesting names in the Pirates' organization may not start the season in the rotation, but will undoubtedly be heard from by season's end. No, I'm not talking about Brandon Cumpton, though the pun possibilities are through the roof. Top prospect Jameson Taillon continued to climb the minor league ladder in 2013, putting up solid numbers at Double-A Altoona and Triple-A Indianapolis. The 22 year old will make his big league debut this year and should be an integral member of the Pirates' rotation going forward. The only question left is how long the organization will make him wait. Like Cole before him, expect Taillon to get the call around the Super Two deadline in June or July.

As good as the Pirates' rotation was last year, their bullpen was even better. They compiled the second-best ERA in the National League despite pitching the second-most innings. Five relievers -- Mark Melancon, Jason Grilli, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, and Vin Mazzaro -- combined for a 2.25 ERA and 5.4 WAR in 340 innings*. All five will be around again in 2014. Joining them will be at least one of Jeanmar Gomez and Stolmy Pimentel. Gomez put up a 3.35 ERA last year in a spot starter/long relief role, but his peripherals were not pretty. Pimentel has the stuff to handle a late inning role at some point, but the organization does not seem ready to fully commit the minor league starter to the bullpen.

*Comparison: the entire Tigers' bullpen combined for 4.1 WAR in 439 2/3 innings last year.

Player to watch: Starling Marte

I talked about Marte's huge arm in last year's Pirates preview, but the young Dominican showed off all five tools in a breakout sophomore season in 2013. He hit for average, sporting a .280 batting average and a .343 on base percentage. He hit for power, with 48 extra base hits including 10 triples. He showed off excellent speed, stealing 41 bases (though he was caught a league-leading 15 times). He was also an excellent defender in left, which makes sense given his pedigree as a center fielder coming up through the minors. Marte has his issues -- he struggled against right-handed pitching at times and struck out in 24.4% of his plate appearances -- but should continue to wow us for years to come.

Outlook

It is tough to look at this roster and think that the Pirates are capable of another 94 win season. There is plenty of talent there (and more on the way), but too much went right in 2013 to expect another playoff appearance. The Pirates outperformed their pythagorean win expectation by six victories last year, and with natural regression from some places -- namely, the bullpen -- the Bucs should fight to finish over .500. They probably will, but the playoff drought begins anew in 2014.

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