Mar 18, 2013, 10:47 PM EDT
Between now and Opening Day, HardballTalk will take a look at each of baseball’s 30 teams, asking the key questions, the not-so-key questions, and generally breaking down their chances for the 2013 season. Up next: The Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Big Question: Can the Buccos break .500 for the first time since the 1992 season?
It is absolutely possible. The Pirates finished only four games under the .500 mark (79-83) in 2012 and seem capable of significant improvement in 2013. Andrew McCutchen has been a star for years but truly had a breakout 2012 campaign, posting career highs in batting average (.327), homers (31), RBI (96) and runs scored (107). His .953 OPS was higher than his previous best by a whole 112 points. Maybe some regression is coming, but then again maybe it’s not.
McCutchen isn’t the only difference-maker in the Pirates’ lineup. Starling Marte hit .286/.347/.500 with 12 homers, 13 triples and 21 stolen bases in 100 games last season at Triple-A Indianapolis before getting called up to Pittsburgh and giving the National League a taste of his potential down the stretch. He’ll bat leadoff this year in front of Neil Walker, who proved his legitimacy in 2012 by producing a career-high 14 home runs in 129 games while lifting his average, OBP and slugging percentage all from where they were in 2011.
Pirates first baseman Garrett Jones also produced a career-best home run total last season, slugging 27 in 145 games. He had 16 homers in 148 games in 2011. And then there’s third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who is entering his physical prime at age 26 and tallied 30 big flies last year at age 25. The Bucs have a handful of legitimate power bats, and free agent acquisition Russell Martin should only help the run-production. He was handed a two-year, $17 million contract this winter to provide needed stability behind the plate.
This is not a bad National League offense, and the rotation looks better than it has in over a decade.
Wandy Rodriguez registered a 3.72 ERA in 75 innings with the Pirates last season after arriving in a July 25 trade with Houston. The veteran left-hander owns a 3.48 ERA in 934 2/3 innings since 2008. A.J. Burnett has found new life in the Steel City and was almost ace-like in 2012, spreading a 3.51 ERA over 200-plus frames. James McDonald has flashed potential, and Gerrit Cole — the No. 1 overall pick from 2011 — is expected to reach the major leagues in June. Jameson Taillon — the No. 2 overall pick in 2010 — is also getting close.
These aren’t your older cousin’s Pirates. Las Vegas gives them an over/under of 77.5 wins. I like the over, and I think they can approach something like 85 victories if their most important players stay healthy all year.
What Else Is Going On?
- Left-hander Francisco Liriano could also be of help to the Pittsburgh rotation at some point in 2013. He originally agreed to a two-year, $14 million free agent contract with the Bucs in December, but he injured his right (non-throwing) arm before making that deal official and had to settle for an adjusted two-year, $12.75 million pact. Liriano has posted an ugly 5.23 ERA and 1.48 WHIP over his last 291 innings, but he was a force for the Twins in 2010 and he’s only 29 years old. Liriano will be recovered by May.
- The Pirates held a share of first place in the National League Central on July 25, 2011, only to go 19-43 over their final 62 games. They had a share of first place on July 18, 2012, and then came another late-season fade. Fair or not, much of the blame for this inability to finish strong has fallen on the broad shoulders of manager Clint Hurdle. He is currently under contract through 2014, but failing to meet expectations this year could irk the club’s higher-ups to the point where they want to make a change.
- The Pittsburgh bullpen isn’t great. Last year’s closer, Joel Hanrahan, was traded to Boston this winter in a six-player swap. Jason Grilli was very good last season and should do fine as the new ninth-inning man, but getting leads to him may be an issue. Mark Melancon, who came to Pittsburgh in that Hanrahan deal, posted a 6.20 ERA across 45 innings with the Red Sox in 2012. Tony Watson is solid but not dominant, and Jared Hughes fits that same profile. It’s not an especially exciting group.
- Those back-to-back late-season tumbles have only been made possible by back-to-back early-season success, which has helped pumped life into one of the most well-designed sports stadiums in the world. PNC Park hosted 2,091,918 fans in 2012, up from 1,940,429 fans in 2011 and 1,613,399 million in 2010. Pittsburgh is among the best pro sports towns in the country, and Major League Baseball is always going to better off when its team there is worth watching. “Raise the Jolly Roger” and all that.
Prediction: Third place in the National League Central, behind the Reds and Cardinals.
May 18, 2013, 9:00 PM EDT
With Franklin Gutierrez working his way back into playing shape after landing on the DL with a strained right hamstring, Geoff Baker of the Seattle Times suggests Endy Chavez could be the odd man out to create room on the roster. Chavez has a .288 on-base percentage and .310 slugging percentage. Meanwhile, Jason Bay and…
May 18, 2013, 8:30 PM EDT
Padres lefty Cory Luebke has suffered a setback in his quest to return from Tommy John surgery, stopping his throwing program for the second time in 2013 according to MLB.com’s Corey Brock. Luebke posted a 2.61 ERA in five starts last year before landing on the DL in late April and undergoing TJ surgery in…
May 18, 2013, 7:55 PM EDT
The Braves just received some bad news on reliever Eric O’Flaherty, as the lefty was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. Losing O’Flaherty means the Braves have just one left-hander in the bullpen in Luis Avilan. As a result, the Braves signed Joe Beimel to a minor league contract per Tim…
May 18, 2013, 7:19 PM EDT
If you needed a reminder that Joey Votto is the best pure hitter in baseball, you got one this evening as the Reds defeated the Phillies 10-0. Joey Votto came to the plate six times and reached base all six times, including a two-run home run in the top of the ninth that served as…
May 18, 2013, 6:45 PM EDT
Cardinals starter Jaime Garcia had two uncharacteristically bad starts against the Rockies and Brewers recently, surrendering five and six runs, respectively. Garcia dealt with shoulder issues last year and they may be to blame for his recent adversity as well. The Cardinals have placed him on the 15-day disabled list with a left shoulder strain,…
May 18, 2013, 6:15 PM EDT
UPDATE: It looks like Eric O’Flaherty is facing the worst-case scenario, as David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that he was diagnosed with a torn ulnar collateral ligament in his left elbow. He’ll see Dr. James Andrews next week, but it would be a surprise if Tommy John surgery wasn’t the next step. The…
May 18, 2013, 6:05 PM EDT
In a season that has already endured the drama of one cheating allegation, another was set to boil last night when Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki asked umpire Tim McClelland to inspect the baseball Giants starter Madison Bumgarner was gripping. McClelland gave it a once-over, then tossed the ball out of play. Bumgarner said something to…
May 18, 2013, 5:40 PM EDT
This story is only tangentially linked to baseball, but it’s a slow Saturday afternoon, so what the heck. As you’ll see below, former pro wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts led the Turner Field crowd in “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during last night’s game between the Dodgers and Braves. Roberts (whose real name is…
May 18, 2013, 5:20 PM EDT
Robinson Cano homered twice while David Phelps had the longest outing of his career as the Yankees topped the Blue Jays 7-2 this afternoon at Yankee Stadium. Brandon Morrow, who was recently skipped twice in Toronto’s rotation due to neck and back tightness, gave up five runs in five innings in the loss. Cano did…
May 18, 2013, 4:39 PM EDT
Chris Nelson is on the move again. After being designated for assignment by the Yankees earlier this week, Nelson has been claimed off waivers by the Angels. Nelson began the season as the Rockies’ starting third baseman, but he batted .242/.282/.318 in 71 plate appearances before losing his job to Nolan Arenado and being traded…
May 18, 2013, 4:05 PM EDT
Josh Johnson was off to an awful start before he landed on the disabled list last month with right triceps inflammation, but he’s ready to return to game action. Shi Davidi of Sportsnet.ca reports that Johnson is slated to begin a minor league rehab assignment Monday with High-A Dunedin. He will likely need two or…
May 18, 2013, 2:45 PM EDT
With Johnny Cueto slated to return from a lat strain on Monday, the Reds have optioned left-hander Tony Cingrani back to Triple-A Louisville. Neftali Solo has been called up to take his place on the active roster. Cingrani was pretty impressive during his first stint in the majors, posting a 3.27 ERA and 41/9 K/BB…
May 18, 2013, 2:02 PM EDT
Nolan Reimold hasn’t played in a game in a week and now the Orioles have placed him on the disabled list with a right hamstring strain. Reimold has been nursing a hamstring issue since the first week of the season, but he has remained on the active roster until now. However, it’s likely a big…
May 18, 2013, 1:30 PM EDT
The Yankees designated infielder Alberto Gonzalez for assignment this afternoon in order to make room for the newly-acquired Reid Brignac. Some thought that Ben Francisco‘s roster spot could be in jeopardy, as he’s hitting just .114 (5-for-44) in 21 games, but Yankees general manager Brian Cashman joked to reporters today that he’s keeping him around…
May 18, 2013, 12:40 PM EDT
Matt Garza has been cleared to return from the disabled list and will make his season debut Tuesday against the Pirates, according to CSNChicago.com. Garza didn’t throw a pitch after July 21 last season due to a stress reaction in his elbow and was forced to begin this season on the disabled list due to…
May 18, 2013, 11:50 AM EDT
CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman reports that the Yankees have acquired infielder Reid Brignac from the Rockies. Colorado will receive cash considerations in return. Brignac was designated for assignment by the Rockies on Thursday after he batted .250/.294/.375 with one home run, six RBI and a .669 OPS in 53 plate appearances this season. Originally drafted…
May 18, 2013, 11:27 AM EDT
Curtis Granderson was moved to left field when he returned from the disabled list this week, but he’ll make his first career start in right field this afternoon against the Blue Jays. According to Chad Jennings of the Journal News, Yankees manager Joe Girardi said Granderson was “fine” with the latest move when they discussed…
May 18, 2013, 10:59 AM EDT
It turns out that Diamondbacks reliever Heath Bell made his return to Marlins Park on Thursday night, not for last night’s series opener. According to Steve Gilbert of MLB.com, Bell said that he took in Thursday’s Reds-Marlins game from the stands. The D-backs arrived in Miami in the wee hours Thursday morning and Bell took…
May 18, 2013, 10:35 AM EDT
The Marlins signed veteran reliever Jon Rauch to a one-year, $1 million contract over the winter, but he has been designated for assignment after making just 15 appearances with the club. Duane Below has been called up from Triple-A New Orleans to replace him on the active roster. Rauch has really struggled in the early…
May 18, 2013, 10:09 AM EDT
UPDATE: Mets general manager Sandy Alderson told Mike Puma of the New York Post this afternoon that there’s no deadline for a decision to be made on Davis’ status. 10:10 AM: Ike Davis finally broke his 0-for-24 hitless streak yesterday with a single to center field in the sixth inning, but he’s still at risk…
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