It is almost hard to believe the Pittsburgh Pirates were the laughingstocks of baseball not long ago. They had 20 consecutive losing seasons from 1993-2012, the longest such streak of futility in major North American professional sports history.
However, the Pirates have put that in the past by winning the first NL wild card in each of the last two seasons. The expectations of the organization far exceed finishing .500 now, as the goal has become to reach the World Series for the first time since 1979. The Pirates are in position to contend again this season, and also for many years to come, as they have a talented core group of players in the major leagues — led by superstar center fielder Andrew McCutchen — and a solid farm system.
“Somewhere along the way I was asked if we were content not being one-year wonders,” says general manager Neal Huntington, who enters his eighth full season on the job. “Our goal is to not be two-year wonders. We’ve set the goal from the day we got in here, the day we arrived in Pittsburgh, our goal was to be a consistent championship-caliber organization.”
Hard-throwing righthander Gerrit Cole is eventually going to be the ace of the staff and has already shown he can win big games. However, he is still just 24, and the Pirates have surrounded him at the top of the rotation with a pair of veterans in lefthander Francisco Liriano and righthander A.J. Burnett to ease some of the transition into being a No. 1 starter. Liriano was re-signed to a three-year, $39 million contract as a free agent in December after going 23–18 with a 3.20 ERA in 55 starts in his first two seasons with the Pirates. Burnett returned on a cut-rate deal, signing for one year and $8.5 million after spending last season with the Philadelphia Phillies, where he led the MLB in losses while going 8–18 with a 4.59 ERA in 34 starts. However, the 38-year-old wanted to pitch one final season before retiring and do so with the Pirates after going a combined 26–21 with a 3.41 ERA in 61 starts with the team in 2012-13. Righthander Charlie Morton will likely begin the season on the disabled list after undergoing hip surgery in late September but could be back sometime in May. Lefthander Jeff Locke, two years removed from being an All-Star, likely will begin the season in the rotation, and Vance Worley has the edge over fellow righty Brandon Cumpton and veteran lefthander Clayton Richard for the final spot. Worley was a revelation last season, going 8–4 with a 2.85 ERA in 18 games.
Huntington has consistently built first-rate relief corps on a tight budget. Closer Mark Melancon will anchor the bullpen again. In his two seasons with the Pirates, the righthander has compiled a 1.65 ERA in 144 games while allowing just 1.2 walks and 0.2 home runs per nine innings. Lefthander Tony Watson is an outstanding setup man and was selected to play in his first All-Star Game last season. He has a 2.63 ERA in his four-year career. Towering righthander John Holdzkom came out of nowhere — he was signed off the Amarillo roster in the independent American Association in June — to pitch high-leverage innings late last season. The Pirates are hopeful he can be their top setup reliever from the right side with his 100-plus fastball. Righthander Jared Hughes has compiled a 2.95 ERA in his first four seasons in the major leagues. Lefthander Antonio Bastardo was acquired from the Phillies in a trade for lefty pitching prospect Joely Rodriguez at the winter meetings after holding opponents to a .201 batting average in his six seasons in Philadelphia. Stolmy Pimentel has pitched just 42 major league innings but will almost certainly make the team out of spring training as a long reliever. He is out of minor league options and would be subjected to waivers if the Pirates tried to send him to Triple-A. The Pirates were so impressed by how well Radhames Liz pitched in winter ball in his native Dominican Republic that they signed him to a major league contract, even though the one-time top prospect is 31 and hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2009 with the Baltimore Orioles.
The Pirates’ biggest offseason splash came when they signed 27-year-old Korean shortstop Jung-Ho Kang to a four-year, $11 million deal plus $5 million posting fee. Kang put together a monster season in the Korean league in 2014, hitting .356 with 40 home runs and 117 RBIs, but it remains to be seen how this will carry over to much stiffer competition in the U.S. Kang’s no lock for significant playing time, as he will need to unseat Jordy Mercer at shortstop. Seemingly an afterthought in the Pirates’ farm system for many years, Mercer spent his first full season as a starting shortstop in the major leagues last year and did well after an awful start. He ended up hitting .255 with 12 home runs in 149 games, but the biggest surprise was his above average defense. Switch-hitting second baseman Neil Walker is a dependable player and a hometown hero — he grew up in the northern suburb of Gibsonia, Pa. The six-year veteran belted a career-high 23 home runs last season while hitting .271 in 137 games.
Pedro Alvarez will make the move across the diamond from third base to first base in spring training after he developed a problem making routine throws last season that led to him leading the major leagues with 25 errors. He also hit just 18 home runs in 122 games, half of his NL-leading total of 36 in 2013. Josh Harrison will begin the year as the everyday third baseman after being one of the best stories in baseball last season. Harrison barely made the team in spring training and wound up playing in the All-Star Game as he hit .315 with 18 stolen bases in 143 games while, at various times, filling holes at second base, third base, left field and right field.
McCutchen anchors a talented and athletic outfield that includes Starling Marte in left and Gregory Polanco in right. McCutchen had a better season in 2014 than when he won the NL MVP award the year before, hitting .314 with 25 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 146 games while leading the majors with a .410 on-base percentage. Marte didn’t have the breakout season many expected as he was distracted by tragedies in his personal life. Yet he still hit .291 with 13 homers and 30 steals in 135 games. Arriving to great fanfare in June, Polanco responded with a hit in each of his first 11 games. However, the league caught up to Polanco, and he finished with a .235 batting average in 89 games, though he hit seven homers and stole 14 bases.
Francisco Cervelli gets his long-awaited chance to be a starter after logging seven years as a backup with the New York Yankees, who traded him to the Pirates in November for left-handed reliever Justin Wilson. Cervelli is outstanding defensively and has a .278 lifetime batting average. However, he has been hampered by injuries throughout his career, and the Pirates plan to limit him to around 100 starts in an attempt to keep him healthy.
The Pirates could have their most powerful bench in years, especially if Kang’s power translates to his new league. Pittsburgh also added right-handed-hitting first baseman/outfielder Corey Hart, who was signed to a one-year, $2.5-million contract as a free agent. The Pirates traded with the Tampa Bay Rays for Sean Rodriguez, who can play all four infield spots and each of the three outfield positions. He also provides some pop. Slick-fielding middle infielder Pedro Florimon was claimed off waivers after spending the last three seasons with the Minnesota Twins. Veteran Chris Stewart will be the backup catcher to Cervelli, his former Yankees teammate.
Clint Hurdle enters his fifth season as manager and has been the perfect fit in Pittsburgh. His positive attitude and the ability to connect with people and inspire them have not only left a mark on the franchise but also the city.
The Pirates’ goal this season is to win the NL Central and avoid the wild card. They will have their hands full in a strong division but once again have the look of contenders with a good pitching staff, solid lineup and increased depth.
2015 Prediction: 2nd in NL Central (Wild Card)
3B Josh Harrison (R) Earned a promotion to full-time third baseman after thriving as utility player last season.
RF Gregory Polanco (L) Has more raw talent than anyone in the lineup but needs polish.
CF Andrew McCutchen (R) Missed out on back-to-back MVPs despite having another brilliant season.
2B Neil Walker (S) He is a steady run producer — especially for a middle infielder.
LF Starling Marte (R) A burgeoning star who seems poised for a breakout after two solid seasons.
1B Pedro Alvarez (L) Will be interesting to see how he handles making the transition from third base to first base.
SS Jordy Mercer (R) Not flashy in the field, but he gets the job done and can also hit.
C Francisco Cervelli (R) Longtime Yankee is a solid defensive backstop who has hit well when given the opportunity.
C Chris Stewart (R) Had his best offensive season in 2014 but is in the major leagues because of his defense.
1B/OF Corey Hart (R) Will likely start at first base against lefthanders while trying to get his career back on track.
INF Pedro Florimon (S) Provides excellent defense at the middle infield positions, but don’t expect any offense.
UT Sean Rodriguez (R) Versatility is his strength, and he can also pop an occasional home run.
SS Jung-Ho Kang (R) Everyone waiting to see if Korean League star can handle transition to MLB.
LH Francisco Liriano Re-signed after testing the free agent market and will be the de facto ace of a strong staff.
RH A.J. Burnett Returns from a one-year hiatus in Philadelphia with hopes of winning a ring in his last season.
RH Gerrit Cole Former top pick is the No. 1 starter in waiting — and the wait might not last much longer.
LH Jeff Locke Former second-round pick of the Braves is a very capable major league starter — when he throws strikes.
RH Vance Worley One of the Pirates’ many pitching reclamation projects, Worley won eight games in 2014.
RH Mark Melancon (Closer) Thanks to an unhittable cutter, he’s had a sub-1.000 WHIP each of the last two seasons.
LH Tony Watson One of the most talented and durable left-handed relievers in the game.
RH John Holdzkom Pirates found a gem when they signed him from an independent league last June.
RH Jared Hughes Former fourth-round pick has been excellent at escaping mid-inning jams.
LH Antonio Bastardo Former Phillie provides a solid lefty option in the middle innings.
RH Stolmy Pimentel Has yet to be given the chance to show if he can pitch in high-leverage situations.
RH Radhames Liz One-time Oriole looks to return to the major leagues after a three-year stint in Korea.
Beyond the Box Score
Destination job There was a time not long ago when free agents who signed with the Pirates felt like they were going to the end of the baseball world. However, perceptions have changed following back-to-back postseason trips that came on the heels of 20 straight losing seasons. Throw in the fact that the Pirates have one of the most scenic homes in the major leagues in PNC Park, and Pittsburgh has become a destination. “We’re in a position now where agents are calling us, versus us having to chase their guys,” general manager Neal Huntington says. The Pirates were able to sign a pair of veteran starting pitchers as free agents in the offseason, bringing lefthander Francisco Liriano back on a three-year, $39 million contract and righthander A.J. Burnett on a one-year, $8.5 million deal. Both said they turned down more lucrative offers from other clubs.
Show me Agent Scott Boras isn’t quite sold on the Pirates having staying power as a contender, though. “How you build that World Series contender year after year is that when you bring these young players here and they become great players you have to sign not one or two, but you have to keep a core of them,” he says. “That’s the question that has yet to be answered as we go forward.” Boras represents Pirates righthander Gerrit Cole and first baseman Pedro Alvarez along with top first base/outfield prospect Josh Bell.
Finally home Super utility player Sean Rodriguez, acquired from Tampa Bay in an offseason trade for pitching prospect Buddy Borden, has seemingly always been a National League player trapped in an American League uniform. Rodriguez has played every position but pitcher and catcher in the major leagues, and that versatility should play well in the NL. “Whatever they ask me to do, I’m going to do it,” Rodriguez says.
Shagging flies Left fielder Starling Marte and right fielder Gregory Polanco spent part of the winter working out together in their native Dominican Republic, concentrating on tracking fly balls. “I think if people hit it that way, they have no chance,” Marte says of a potentially outstanding defensive outfield that also includes Gold Glove center fielder Andrew McCutchen.
2014 Top Draft Pick
Cole Tucker, SS
While the Pirates were mulling the idea of drafting Tucker from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix with the 24th overall pick, there were three people with ties to the organization who could vouch for him. Retired corner infielder Kevin Young coached Tucker in youth baseball. Current Pirates first baseman Pedro Alvarez has known Tucker, whose younger brother plays youth baseball with Alvarez’s brother-in-law, since 2008. Also, a son of former shortstop and hitting coach Jay Bell played with Tucker in high school. Though 6'3", Tucker has the athleticism, range and arm to stay at shortstop. He is a project offensively, however, as he is primarily a contact hitter and lacks pop, but the Pirates are confident that the 180-pounder will hit for at least some power as his body matures.
Top 10 Prospects
1. Tyler Glasnow, RHP (21) Fifth-round pick in 2011 has blossomed as a professional, winning the organization’s Minor League Pitcher of the Year in each of the last two seasons.
2. Jameson Taillon, RHP (23) The second overall pick in the 2010 draft missed the season after undergoing Tommy John reconstructive elbow surgery
3. Josh Bell, 1B/OF (22) His development was slowed by a knee injury in 2012. Finally healthy again last season, he was the Florida State League Player of the Year.
4. Austin Meadows, OF (19) The first of two first-round draft picks in 2013, Meadows has shown five-tool ability when healthy. However, he missed most of last season with a hamstring injury.
5. Nick Kingham, RHP (23) 2010 fourth-round pick has good command of a three-pitch mix. Could be the first starter called up from Indianapolis this season.
6. Reese McGuire, C (20) The Pirates’ second first-round pick in 2013 is considered one of the finest defensive catchers in the minor leagues.
7. Alen Hanson, 2B/SS (22) The Dominican native will likely wind up at second base because of a below-average arm. He has speed and some power.
8. Cole Tucker, SS (18) Tucker shows great maturity for his age and should be able to handle the jump to Low-A West Virginia this season.
9. Harold Ramirez, OF (20) The product of Colombia has speed and emerging power. However, his 2014 season was ruined by leg injuries.
10. Mitch Keller, RHP (19) A second-round pick in last year’s draft, he has a fastball that reaches 95 mph and a curveball that is developing into a weapon.