If the season ended in mid-September, the Pirates’ streak of 20 consecutive losing seasons would be over. Alas, the Major League campaign continues to run through September, and the Pirates have to find a way to keep playing well throughout the entire season. Their record after Aug. 1 the past two seasons is a combined 37–76, costing them a chance (twice) at making a run at a postseason berth. So how do the Pirates get over the hump in the final third of the season?
Righthander A.J. Burnett and lefty Wandy Rodriguez, both acquired in trades last season, are the top two starters. Burnett went 16–10 with a 3.51 ERA after coming over from the New York Yankees in the early days of spring training. Rodriguez was acquired from Houston in a late-July trade and was 5–4 with a 3.72 ERA in 13 games with the Pirates and 12–13 with a 3.76 ERA overall. Righthander James McDonald went 9–3 with a 2.37 ERA before the All-Star break but finished 12–8 with a 4.21 ERA and was yanked from the rotation in the season’s final weeks. One of pitching coach Ray Searage’s biggest challenges this spring will be to get McDonald back to his first-half form. Another priority for the affable Searage will be finding a way to turn Jeanmar Gomez, acquired from Cleveland in a January trade, into a reliable starter. The 25-year-old Gomez had a 14–16 record in three years with the Tribe, but he had his worst season in 2012, going 5–8 with a 5.96 ERA in 20 games, including 17 starts. He’ll probably start the season in the bullpen until he proves he has turned the corner. The Bucs will turn to one youngster and one journeyman to complete the rotation. Lefty Jeff Locke, just 25, will get a chance to start every fifth day. Jonathan Sanchez, with just one successful season — 2010 with the Giants — on his résumé, will begin the season in the fifth spot.
Setup man Jason Grilli will be elevated to closer following the offseason trade of two-time All-Star Joel Hanrahan to Boston. Hanrahan converted 76-of-84 save opportunities during his two years as the Pirates’ closer. Meanwhile, Grilli has five saves in 10 big-league seasons. However, the Pirates are convinced the 36-year-old can pitch effectively in the ninth inning after he struck out 90 batters in 58.2 innings last season. They signed him to a two-year, $6.75 million deal in the offseason. Mark Melancon, who came over in the Hanrahan trade, will get a chance to pitch in a setup role despite struggling (6.20 ERA in 41 games) with the Red Sox last season. Jared Hughes will also pitch late in games after proving to be durable as a rookie in 2012. He worked in 66 games and recorded a 2.85 ERA. Tony Watson served as the lone left-handed reliever for most of last season and led the team with 68 appearances, posting a 3.38 ERA. Righthander Chris Leroux, out of minor league options, is likely to make the team as well. Gomez will pitch in long relief early, but he should eventually replace Sanchez in the rotation.
The double-play combination of shortstop Clint Barmes and second baseman Neil Walker is not the flashiest in the big leagues, but they form a solid defensive duo. Barmes struggled at the plate last year in the first season of a two-year, $10.5-million free agent contract, hitting only .229 with eight home runs in 455 at-bats. Walker hit .280 with 14 homers but missed most of September with a herniated disc in his lower back.
Few big-league hitters have more raw power than third baseman Pedro Alvarez, but he is still refining his game. He hit 30 home runs in 2012, his first full season in the majors, but also had a .244 batting average and 180 strikeouts. First baseman Garrett Jones had the best season of his five-year career, hitting .274 and belting 27 homers. However, Jones is a career .198 hitter against left-handed pitchers and will be often spelled against southpaws by Gaby Sanchez.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen had his best season yet in 2012 as he won back-to-back National League Player of the Month awards in June and July, hitting a combined .405 with 14 home runs in 52 games. He capped the year by winning his first career NL Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards. He finished the season hitting .327 with 31 home runs and 20 stolen bases. A group of five players — Starling Marte, Alex Presley, Jerry Sands, Travis Snider and Jose Tabata — began the spring competing for the other two starting spots. Marte hit .257 with five homers and 12 steals in 47 games as a rookie last season, while Presley, who began the year as the starting left fielder, batted .237 with 10 homers. Sands played in 70 games with the Dodgers the past two seasons and hit only .244 with four homers. Snider battled hamstring problems after being acquired from Toronto in a late-July trade last season and hit just .250 with one homer in 50 games. Tabata flopped in the first year of a six-year, $15-million contract, posting a .243 batting average with only three home runs. For now, the Pirates will go with Marte and Snider. But both are one slump away from demotion.
The Pirates made a rare free-agent splash by signing Russell Martin for two years and $17 million after he hit a career-high 21 home runs for the Yankees. He also hit a career-worst .211 but should be a big upgrade defensively from Rod Barajas.
Michael McKenry is a solid No. 2 catcher with pop who hit 12 home runs in 88 games last season. Sanchez hit just .241 with four homers in 50 games after coming over from the Marlins last year but is being counted on as the top right-handed hitter off the bench. Josh Harrison is below average defensively, but he is valuable because he can play almost anywhere on the infield and both corner outfield spots. John McDonald, acquired from Arizona late in spring training, is the backup at middle infield. He is a terrific defender. Tabata, one of the odd men out in the outfield competition, should stick as the fourth outfielder.
Hurdle has changed the culture of the clubhouse and instilled confidence and a winning attitude in a young club during his two years as manager. While he may not be a master strategist, and his bombastic nature can be wearing at times, he is a motivator. General manager Neal Huntington has hit some potholes along the way but has improved the talent throughout the organization during his five-year tenure. Huntington has whiffed on a number of free-agent signings, so it’s important that Martin — who received a big-money contract by the penny-pinching Pirates’ standards — plays well enough to warrant his deal in 2013.
The last two seasons have ended in disappointment for the Pirates. But there’s no denying that this franchise has made significant progress in recent years. The Pirates went 79–83 last season and were just three wins away from finally ending their streak of sub-.500 finishes. Making a run at the postseason might be a stretch — even in the era of the second wild card — but a winning record appears to be a realistic goal in Pittsburgh.
LF Starling Marte (R)
Has the power and speed to be a star, but needs to raise his .300 on-base percentage.
2B Neil Walker (S)
A solid all-around second baseman with some pop in his bat, though back problems are a concern.
CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
Already one of the game’s biggest stars at 26, and he still has room to improve his all-around game.
1B Garrett Jones (L)
Mashes right-handed pitching, but his troubles against lefties keep him from playing every day.
3B Pedro Alvarez (L)
Plenty of pop in his bat, but he also has plenty of holes in his swing; struck out 180 times last season.
C Russell Martin (R)
Figures to give his new team solid run production and a strong presence behind the plate.
RF Travis Snider (L)
Has seemingly been a prospect forever, but this season might be now or never for him.
SS Clint Barmes (R)
Solid glove work is the only thing still keeping him in the lineup; hit a career-low .229 last season.
C Michael McKenry (R)
Solid backup has surprising pop in his bat for a little guy, and pitchers love throwing to him.
1B Gaby Sanchez (R)
Late-season power surge in 2012 provides hope he can offer more run production in 2013.
UT Josh Harrison (R)
A true hacker as he has drawn just 13 walks in 480 big- league plate appearances.
OF Jose Tabata (R)
Still just 24, but the regression of his power and speed is alarming; has only 11 home runs in 1,072 at-bats.
SS John McDonald (R)
The outstanding defender was picked up from Arizona late in spring training.
RH A.J. Burnett
Still has great stuff at 36 and was rejuvenated last season by getting traded from the Yankees to Pirates.
LH Wandy Rodriguez
Southpaw’s outstanding command allows him to compete with an average arsenal.
RH James McDonald
Has the stuff to be an ace but lacks both the confidence and mental toughness to be a top-of-rotation fixture.
LH Jonathan Sanchez
Discounting his breakout (and fluky?) 2010, he’s 26-46 with a 1.52 WHIP and 5.09 ERA for his career.
LH Jeff Locke
Only twice in 10 career starts has he completed six innings, never more than that. But in his last start in 2012, he allowed just two hits and one run over six innings to the Braves.
RH Jason Grilli (Closer)
The journeyman is throwing harder than ever at 37 and was dominant last season as a set-up man.
RH Mark Melancon
Pirates hoping a switch back to the National League will get him back on track after a horrible year with Boston.
LH Tony Watson
Took a little bit off his fastball last year in his first full big-league season and gained better command.
RH Jared Hughes
He has an outstanding sinker and could be dominant if he develops a stronger second pitch.
RH Chris Leroux
Tall pitcher whose arm angle makes it difficult for hitters to pick up his pitches.
LH Justin Wilson
Converted starter has hit 99 mph with his fastball out of the bullpen.
LH Jeanmar Gomez
Gets a fresh start in the National League after a rough 2012 with the Indians.