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Friday, March 21, 2014

MLB 2014 Team Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

Wild on Sports
MLB 2014 Team Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates
By Wild on Sports MLB Analyst Aaron Dorman

2013 Season Overview: 

Finally! Barry Bonds and Andy Van Slyke are gone but 22 years later the Pirates make it back into the playoffs. In matchups against division rivals, the Pirates beat out the Reds for the wild card berth but lose to the Cardinals in five games. Andrew McCutchen wins the MVP and Francisco Liriano has his umpteenth rebound season, winning 16 games in just 26 starts. Overall Pittsburgh fans have a lot to feel good about going forward.

Winter Grade C-
Coming: Edinson Volquez
Going: AJ Burnett, Garrett Jones, Marlon Byrd, Justin Morneau
Losing Burnett is the only big hurt here; Jones’ one-dimensional power was diminishing and the other two guys were acquired in late August. A quiet winter in Pittsburgh serves as a reminder of the tight payroll constraints GM Neal Huntington is working under. The problem with losing Burnett is not just replacing his stellar pitching—the Pirates have plenty on hand, and should expect a full season out of former no. 1 pick Gerritt Cole—but rather the questionable decision not to offer him a qualifying offer (1 year, $14.1 million). The Pirates wrongly assumed he was picking between retirement or re-signing, and so perhaps didn’t put out the qualifying offer as a matter of good faith. But by the time Burnett decided to play in 2014, he ended up signing with the Phillies, and now Pittsburgh has no compensation for losing him. This is a missed opportunity for a team that will have to recoup draft picks from free agents who are too expensive to keep. Also, it would have made more sense for them to pursue a handful of more reliable players; there’s a solid chance Liriano and Starling Marte, among others, do not maintain their production. Instead, Pittsburgh goes with the iffy proposition that for the third year in a row they can turn a struggling power arm into something useful (Volquez).

Wild Card(s): 
Veteran Wandy Rodriguez is 35 and recovering from a forearm injury, but a mid-rotation lefty would definitely look good behind Gerritt Cole and Liriano next year; Rodriguez has a solid 3.66 ERA in 25 starts for the Pirates between 2012-2013. He’s quietly been one of the more reliable lefties in the league over the past seven years, posting ERAs between 3.02 and 3.76 over that time span.

Another overlooked arm Pittsburgh is hoping breaks out next year is Charlie Morton, who put up a stellar 3.26 ERA in 20 starts last year and was signed to a modest contract extension. He hasn’t been all that great overall (4.70 career ERA) and he’s already 30 but he showed real improvements last year, getting batters to strike out and hit weak ground balls more than at any point prior. Even if he pitches to just his “FIP” (fielding independent pitching, a measure of runs allowed based on walks, strikeouts and home runs) of 3.60, it would make Pittsburgh’s rotation very formidable.

Key Contract Years: 
Russell Martin provides solid defense and a little pop behind the plate; Pittsburgh got lucky that they signed him for just a team-friendly deal and they might have to use 2014 to groom Tony Sanchez to be his successor. Lefties Francisco Liriano and Wandy Rodriguez are also free agents after this year, the former too pricey, the latter too old, for Pittsburgh’s tastes. By then they might have enough homegrown pitching on hand that it won’t matter.

Gregory Polanco is one of the best outfield prospects in the game, but he probably won’t be up until midseason at the earliest, having played only 68 games to date above A-ball and in need of honing his power stroke and batting eye. More likely to make an impact this year are pitchers Jameson Taillon, a former first-round pick who made major improvements striking out batters last year in AA, and Nick Kingham, who has weaker stuff but stronger numbers at the same level. Also, catcher Tony Sanchez hit an impressive .288/.368/.504 in AAA and he’ll turn 26 later this year so his future is now.

Key Questions: 
Who plays first base?
Is Gabby Sanchez and a left-handed platoon partner good enough to last the year?
Can Starling Marte remain a star-level offensive player despite an overly aggressive approach at the plate?
His 25/138 BB/K ratio is pretty ridiculous, but so is his athleticism. Did Pittsburgh ‘fix’ Liriano or was last year just the latest in an unpredictable, up-and-down career for the left-hander?
Who gets the bulk of the playing time at short, defense-only hacker Clint Barmes or surprise contributor Jordy Mercer?
And does that label stick this year?
Can Gerritt Cole step up and duplicate AJ Burnett’s performance from last year?

Farm System Overview: BLUE (elite)
Pittsburgh has drafted early and often, and drafted well. Both of their first round picks from 2013, OFer Austin Meadows and C Reese McGuire, had big debuts in short-season ball, and there’s lots of power arms from Latin America in the lower levels of the system. A bit closer to the majors, Gregory Polanco could be even better than Starling Marte, and Alan Hanson might give Pittsburgh a young shortstop who can get on base at a clip above .250. In fact, he might even be able to become a real asset. Expensive bonuses given out to draftees pre-2012 means that there’s also lots of star-level upside scattered among the levels. Look for a breakout year from outfielder Josh Bell, who Pittsburgh nabbed for $5 million in 2011, the most ever given to a player outside the first round (he’ll play for high-A Bradenton this year).

2014 Prognosis: Possible Contenders
It is highly unlikely that Pittsburgh collapses. However, other teams like the Nationals and Giants did more to improve themselves over the winter and there will be strong competition for both wild card spots. I like Cincinnati’s chances to repeat better, because Pittsburgh has a lot of moving parts; players who will probably regress, rookies whose production is an open question mark and players with health or performance issues that they are counting on a little too hard this year, like Volquez or first baseman Gabby Sanchez. Last year, Pittsburgh got a little lucky both with performances and even their record was about 5-6 wins above what was projected based on their runs scored/runs allowed. They might need to have a consolidation year this season, finding some more stars to complement Andrew McCutchen. Maybe that’s Gerritt Cole, maybe that’s Gregory Polanco. Who knows, maybe this year Pedro Alvarez finally becomes more than lumbering strikeout machine? They’ll compete, but right now they ‘feel’ like 85-win also rans in 2014.


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