Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Preview

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Can Bucs take next step and win NL Central in 2014?

A solid core group of players is in place for at least the next few years. The Pirates also have a strong farm system. However, the team failed to make any splashy moves over the winter, declining to build on the momentum it gained last season and improve a roster weakened by the free-agent losses.

The Pirates want to prove themselves again in 2014. Last year, they ended a string of 20 consecutive losing seasons — the longest in major North American professional team sports history — and also reached the postseason for the first time since 1992. The goal is now to sustain that success rather than be dismissed as a one-year wonder. “Our focus from the start has been to put an organization in place that has a chance to be successful year in and year out,” general manager Neal Huntington says. “It’s a very difficult thing to do.” The Pirates have been building toward being a perennial contender since Huntington was hired late in the 2007 season. Those efforts started moving in the right direction when manager Clint Hurdle was hired, as the Pirates’ win totals have jumped from 57 to 72 to 79 to 94 in his three seasons. Despite last year’s success and the second-highest attendance in club history, Huntington has still been given a mandate by ownership to keep the payroll among the lowest in the game. Thus, the Pirates are going to do things the Tampa Bay Rays way and try to build a winner on the cheap.

Rotation
Lefthander Francisco Liriano takes over for righty A.J. Burnett as the No. 1 starter after winning 16 games last season and one more in the postseason while capturing the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award. Liriano seems to have found a home in Pittsburgh after spending his entire career in the American League. Righthander Gerrit Cole had a solid rookie season after being called up in June and excelled in the final month. It is realistic to believe he could be the staff ace by the end of this season. Veteran lefthander Wandy Rodriguez is a big question mark. Rodriguez, who did not make a start after June 5 last season because of elbow problems, did not need surgery, but he was found to have arthritis in the joint. Righty Charlie Morton made a strong comeback from Tommy John surgery and signed a three-year, $21 million contract extension with a club option that could keep him with the Pirates through the 2017 season. Pitching coach Ray Searage has developed a reputation for being able to fix broken pitchers — Liriano being a case in point — and his pet project this year will be righthander Edinson Volquez, who was signed to a one-year, $5-million contract as a free agent. The Pirates have built good organizational depth with their starting pitching — lefthanders Jeff Locke and Andy Oliver and righthanders Jeanmar Gomez, Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin are options at some point in the season, along with top prospect Jameson Taillon, a 22-year-old righty.

Bullpen
Former journeyman Jason Grilli was a revelation last year in his first season as a closer, converting 33-of-35 save opportunities despite missing a month late in the season with a strained forearm. Grilli was impressive in the postseason, and there is no reason to believe he won’t have another big year in 2014. Righthander Mark Melancon teams with Grilli to give the Pirates a dynamic late-inning tandem. Both were All-Stars a year ago, when Melancon had a 1.39 ERA in 72 games while notching 16 saves as the backup closer. Lefthander Tony Watson has developed into a key member of the bullpen; he is both effective and durable. The Pirates have a number of other big relief arms, including lefty Justin Wilson and righthanders Stolmy Pimentel, Vin Mazzaro and Jared Hughes.

Middle Infield
Jordy Mercer will be the starting shortstop after gradually taking playing time away from veteran Clint Barmes last season. Mercer’s offense is ahead of his defense at this stage of his career, although he did make strides with his glove in 2013. Switch-hitting second baseman Neil Walker is a dependable player who is solid in all phases of the game. His one drawback, though, is a lack of power from the right side.

Corners
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez took a step toward stardom last season when he hit 36 home runs to tie for the NL lead with Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt. Alvarez would likely increase the homer total even more by exercising better plate discipline. Most of right-handed-hitting first baseman Gaby Sanchez’s starts have come against lefthanders since the Pirates acquired him in 2012 in a trade with Miami, but they believe he can handle righthanders if given the chance. Veteran Travis Ishikawa has made strides this spring toward making the team, and could be a nice complement to Sanchez at first base. Rookie Andrew Lambo, a lefty who hit 32 home runs between Triple-A Indianapolis and Double-A Altoona last season, could wind up platooning with Sanchez or at least starting against tough righties. But the club may want to give Lambo a full season at Triple-A.

Outfield
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen affirmed his spot among the best players in the game as he won the NL Most Valuable Player award last season, getting 28 of 30 first-place votes. He is the face of the franchise, and the Pirates will go as far as he can take them. Left fielder Starling Marte had a fine season in his first full year in the bigs. He has the tools to earn his way into the MVP race, too, with power, speed and a strong arm. Jose Tabata will likely be the Opening Day right fielder after finishing last season strong. However, inconsistency has been Tabata’s problem throughout his career, which is why the door could be open for Lambo or Travis Snider to gain playing time.

Catching
Russell Martin turned out to be the perfect fit for the Pirates last season after he was signed as a free agent. He provides outstanding defense, power hitting and credibility as someone who has played in All-Star games and won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger.

Bench
Chris Stewart was acquired from the Yankees in a trade to serve as the backup catcher, but a knee injury in mid-March sent him to the operating room. Tony Sanchez, the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2009, will fill that role. With Martin approaching free agency at the end of this season, the Pirates may be inclined to give Sanchez some additional starts to groom him for 2015. Barmes agreed to come back on a one-year, $2-million contract, taking a $3.5-million pay cut, to back up the middle infield positions and continue to mentor Mercer. Utility player Josh Harrison could be the top right-handed pinch-hitting option despite a .250 batting average and .282 on-base percentage in his three-year career. Assuming that Gaby Sanchez and Tabata play regularly, Snider could be the primary left-handed bench bat.

Management
It took Huntington six years to rebuild the major-league club, the farm system and the scouting department, but the payoff came last season when the Pirates reached the postseason. Many fans and some media members called for Huntington’s firing following the 2012 season when the Pirates collapsed during the season’s final two months for the second consecutive season. To Huntington’s credit, he never deviated from the plan he put in place after being hired away from Cleveland’s front office. Hurdle has proven to be the perfect fit for the Pirates and won NL Manager of the Year honors last season. The most important thing Hurdle has done is change the mindset of everyone in the organization, making them believe the Pirates could be winners from the day he was hired in November 2010. He also has become an integral part of the Pittsburgh community with his charitable work and willingness to connect with the fans.

Final Analysis
A lot of things went right for the Pirates to reach the postseason last year, and for a team that will have one of the lowest payrolls in the game — they were 26th among the 30 major-league teams last season — there is little margin for error. A solid core group of players is in place for at least the next few years, headlined by McCutchen but also including Alvarez, Marte, Walker, Cole and Morton. The Pirates also have a strong farm system. However, the team failed to make any splashy moves over the winter, declining to build on the momentum it gained last season and improve a roster weakened by the free-agent losses of first baseman Justin Morneau and right fielder Marlon Byrd. While that doesn’t mean the Pirates will return to mediocrity (or worse), it is tough to envision them winning 94 games again or reaching the postseason, especially playing in the NL Central, which includes two other 2013 postseason participants in St. Louis and Cincinnati.


Lineup
LF    Starling Marte (R)    
Third player in Pirates history to have 10 triples, 12 home runs, 40 stolen bases in a season.
2B    Neil Walker (S)    
First Pirates second baseman to have four straight double-digit home run seasons.
CF    Andrew McCutchen (R)    
Was NL MVP last season, becoming first Pirates player to win the award since Barry Bonds in 1992.
3B    Pedro Alvarez (L)    
Former No. 2 overall pick led the NL in home runs (36) and strikeouts (186) last year.
C    Russell Martin (R)    
Was responsible for four of the nine walk-off wins at PNC Park in 2013.
1B    Gaby Sanchez (R)    
Former Miami Hurricane hit .325 in his final 50 games last season.
SS    Jordy Mercer (R)    
Hit .347 in September last season to seize control of the starting job.
RF    Jose Tabata (R)    
Venezuelan is a career .296 hitter at PNC Park, .252 on the road.


Bench
C    Tony Sanchez (R)    
After hitting .288 in 76 games at Triple-A last season, he hit .233 with two homers in 60 at-bats for the Pirates.
INF    Clint Barmes (R)    
Opening Day starter at shortstop each of the past two seasons but will now serve as a reserve.
UT    Josh Harrison (R)    
Two of his three home runs last season were as a pinch-hitter.
1B    Travis Ishikawa (L)    
Career .262 average vs. righthanders is not exactly overwhelming.
OF    Travis Snider (L)    
Former first-round pick of the Blue Jays underwent left foot surgery in October.


Rotation
LH    Francisco Liriano     
3.02 ERA last season was his lowest since posting a 2.16 mark for Minnesota as a rookie in 2006.
RH    Gerrit Cole    
Went 4–0 with a 1.69 ERA in five September starts last year to win NL Rookie of the Month.
LH    Wandy Rodriguez    
Missed final 15 weeks of the 2013 season with an elbow injury.
RH    Charlie Morton    
Was 4–1 with a 2.67 ERA over his last 11 starts of the season.
RH    Edinson Volquez    
Gave up an NL-worst 108 earned runs with San Diego and the Dodgers last season.


Bullpen
RH    Jason Grilli (Closer)    
Was leading the NL with 30 saves on July 22 when he strained his forearm.
RH    Mark Melancon    
His 1.39 ERA last year was a team record for a pitcher who worked at least 50 innings exclusively in relief.
LH    Tony Watson    
Made 21 consecutive scoreless appearances, covering 20.1 innings, to end last season.
RH    Jeanmar Gomez    
Bucs were 8-0 in his eight starts last May and June.
LH    Justin Wilson    
Reverse platoon splits in 2013 as righthanders hit .189 and lefthanders batted .200.
RH    Vin Mazzaro    
Was “The Magnificent Mazzaro” last season, stranding 28 of 32 inherited runners in the regular season.
RH    Stolmy Pimentel    
Likely to make the team as a long reliever/spot starter as a rookie since he is out of minor-league options.


2013 Top Draft Pick
Austin Meadows, OF
The Pirates had two top-15 picks for the first time in their history and used the first one, at No. 9 overall, to take the multi-talented Meadows, a high school outfielder from Grayson, Ga. He is often compared to another left-handed-hitting outfielder, Cincinnati right fielder Jay Bruce, and the Pirates would love if Meadows turned into a player who regularly hit 30 home runs and drove in 100 runs. He got off to a good start, hitting .294 with five home runs in 43 games with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Pirates, then going 9-for-17 in a five-game stint with short-season Jamestown. Meadows comes from athletic stock; his father played baseball and was a punter at Morehead State, and his mother played softball at Georgia Southern and Georgia State.

Top Prospects
OF Barrett Barnes (22)
The Pirates top pick in 2012 has speed and power but has been unable to stay healthy as a pro. Former Texas Tech Red Raider has 308 at-bats in two seasons in the minors.
RHP Jameson Taillon (22)
Tall Texan has a good fastball/curveball mix and figures to make his major-league debut this season.
OF Josh Bell (21)
Switch-hitter who was the Pirates’ second-round pick in 2011 is starting to gain his footing in pro ball after an early knee injury set him back.
RHP Tyler Glasnow (20)
The tall, thin righthander had 164 strikeouts in 111.1 innings last season at Low-A.
SS Alen Hanson (21)
A dynamic player with speed and moderate power but may have to move to second base.
RHP Luis Heredia (19)
Conditioning issues contributed to something of a lost season in 2013, but he is still very talented.
OF Gregory Polanco (22)     
A five-tool talent who played at three minor-league levels last year and will make his major-league debut this season.


Beyond the Box Score
Silver screen Rinku Singh has won just 10 games in the Pirates’ farm system and has yet to get past the Low-A level. Yet the left-handed reliever will be the subject of a major feature film along with former Pirates minor-league pitcher Dinesh Patel. “Million Dollar Arm”, scheduled to reach theaters May 16, tells the story of how Singh and Patel were signed to minor-league contracts by the Pirates after appearing on the reality show of the same name in their native India. Jon Hamm stars as agent J.B. Bernstein, who came up with the idea for a contest to find the hardest thrower in India. More than 37,000 tried out for the show before the pool was cut to 30 contestants. Singh won the contest and the $100,000 grand prize, while Patel, who was released by the Pirates following the 2010 season, was second. Neither had ever played baseball; they were training to be javelin throwers.
Professing his love Center fielder Andrew ­McCutchen and girlfriend Maria Hanslovan got engaged in December after dating for four years. The 2013 NL MVP popped the question on national television while appearing on the talk show “Ellen.”
Dapper Dans In addition to winning NL Manager of the Year, Clint Hurdle was honored during the offseason with the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year award, which is presented annually to the year’s top Pittsburgh sports figure. McCutchen won the award for 2012. The Pirates hadn’t won in back-to-back years since Willie Stargell followed Dave Parker, who was honored in 1978.
Bought-in Buc Righthander Charlie Morton did not hesitate to take below market value when he signed a three-year, $21-million contract, which bought out his last year of salary arbitration and first two years of free agency. “The way I looked at it was, I wanted to be a Pirate,” Morton says. “The only way I'm going to be a Pirate is if I sign with the Pirates.”

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