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2014 Preview: Pittsburgh Pirates

Mar 26, 2014, 11:29 PM EDT

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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 2014 season. Next up: The Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Big Question: Is regression inevitable?

The Pirates’ long-term trajectory looks good. 2013 National League MVP Andrew McCutchen is locked in through 2018. Starling Marte, who stole 41 bases last season, was signed this spring to a six-year, $31 million extension that includes options for 2020 and 2021. Gerrit Cole has ace-like potential and is under club control through at least 2019. Gregory Polanco, a young Dominican outfielder who’s built like an NFL tight end, projects to make his major league debut at some point this summer. And right-hander Jameson Taillon, the second overall pick in 2010, is rated among the top pitching prospects in the sport.

Pittsburgh baseball fans got a thrilling glimpse of the club’s treasure trove of talent last season when — along with key contributions from some veterans — the Pirates made the playoffs for the first time since 1992.

But a relatively dormant offseason will make it difficult for the Bucs to prevent a step back in 2014.

The Pirates didn’t make a one-year, $14.1 million qualifying offer to A.J. Burnett, who averaged a 3.41 ERA, 8.9 K/9, and 197 innings per season in his two summers with Pittsburgh. He wound up agreeing with the cross-state Phillies on a one-year, $15 million free agent contract with a player option for 2015. The Bucs will attempt to replace Burnett — at least initially — with a broken-down Edinson Volquez, who has allowed 19 hits and 17 runs in 14 innings this spring. Francisco Liriano should again be lethal, but the rest of Pittsburgh’s rotation is rather suspect. Wandy Rodriguez was limited to 62 2/3 innings in 2013 due to forearm and elbow discomfort and Charlie Morton owns a 4.70 ERA in 589 1/3 career major league frames.

The Pirates should finish above .500 for a second straight season and the future looks incredibly bright, but the front office would have had to improve the 25-man roster this winter to make a push back to the playoffs an expectation for 2014. The Pirates’ run differential last year (+57) paled in comparison to the division-rival Cardinals (+187) and Reds (+109). The National League Central is no longer a push-over division.

What else is going on?

  • Another glaring hole that could have been addressed by the Pirates front office is first base. Gaby Sanchez, the owner of an underwhelming .754 career OPS, is the current projected starter at the National League’s most-premium offensive position. Travis Ishikawa isn’t a very enticing second option.
  • When the Pirates signed catcher Russell Martin to a two-year, $17 million free agent deal in November 2012 it was received as a low-impact move. But the Bucs needed some stability at what is arguably the most important position in baseball and Martin delivered in 2013, slugging 15 home runs and providing excellent defense behind the plate. Martin threw out 40 percent of would-be base-stealers and finished with a catcher’s ERA of 3.16, which ranked second in the major leagues. Yadier Molina‘s catcher’s ERA in 2013 was 3.17. Martin will be looking to further boost his market value in 2014 — another contract year.
  • The Pirates are optimistic that third baseman Pedro Alvarez can build off his breakout 2013 campaign, during which he tallied 36 home runs and 100 RBI on the way to his first career National League All-Star nod and first-ever Silver Slugger Award. Alvarez owns a weak .306 on-base percentage in 1,665 plate appearances at the major league level and he’s not a very good defender at the hot corner, but the former second overall pick sure can mash. He is expected to bat cleanup this summer behind McCutchen.
  • Pittsburgh’s bullpen appears to be a real strength. Veteran closer Jason Grilli turned 37 years old this winter, but he boasts a 2.74 ERA and 201 strikeouts in 141 1/3 innings since the beginning of the 2011 season. He will be set up this year by Mark Melancon, who registered an other-worldly 1.39 ERA in 71 innings last year, and Tony Watson and Justin Wilson — two dominant, hard-throwing left-handers. Stolmy Pimentel, a 24-year-old right-hander, is an up-and-coming middle reliever.

Prediction: The Pirates win 84 games but fail to make it back to October. Third place, NL Central.

  1. mrjameshogg - Mar 26, 2014 at 11:52 PM

    I’m sort of intrigued by the whole Jordy Mercer thing … so, he’s the shortstop? For real? Offense-first, but how much offense does he really bring? I’m not complaining, I have him as my backup MI in my (admittedly very very deep) fantasy league … it just seems odd that’s all

  2. moogro - Mar 27, 2014 at 12:33 AM

    This hurts if they narrowly miss the playoffs. This seems like a team one or two good players away.

    • southpaw2k - Mar 27, 2014 at 7:59 AM

      They’ll be this year’s version of the 2013 Orioles: a team who had reversed a long tradition of losing and made the playoffs, but following the season that spiked interest among its fans did little to build upon itself. They’ll still be competitive and be in the hunt until mid-September or so, but they’ll be on the outside looking in when it’s all said and done.

      That’s a very long-winded way of actually agreeing with you. They *are* one or two players away from really competing with the Cardinals for class of the division, and they didn’t really add much this past off-season.

  3. Barry's Triceps - Mar 27, 2014 at 1:39 AM

    Mercer will start alot of games, then the sabermetrically friendly barmes will close the deal at short. Pedro is fine at 3rd for now. He is a former college SS with a killer Arm. He is like Hanley Ramirez at short just backwards: can make a ton of highlight level plays very few could replicate but then there are some bonehead mistakes and some botched balls. Cut out the bonehead stuff, I can live with a few botched balls.

    In saying that, maybe it would be easier to upgrade 3B via trade (moving Pedro to 1st) then by trying to get a 1B.

    Hopefully Tabata can hold down the fort until Polanco comes up. In a dream scenario, Tabata is a 4th outfielder who can back up all 3 spots while Snider shows something we can use in a trade for a 1b. I wonder if Ike Davis will be platooning with Gaby Sanchez by the end of the year…


    • yahmule - Mar 27, 2014 at 10:42 AM

      It has always seemed like first base was going to be Pedro’s future home.

      Kendrys Morales sure would look nice in that lineup.

      • Barry's Triceps - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:51 PM

        People are worried that Kendrys can’t play 1st everyday in national league. Ive seen this team try to give Jeff Clement at bats at 1B. Ill take Kendrys at the right price.

  4. musketmaniac - Mar 27, 2014 at 2:10 AM

    Pedro needs to be able to hold down the cleanup spot. Big numbers hitting fifth and sixth are not the same

  5. thekingdave - Mar 27, 2014 at 2:27 AM

    “But a relatively dormant offseason will make it difficult for the Bucs to prevent a step back in 2014”

    Ah yes. Because young major league talent never progresses.

    • NYTolstoy - Mar 27, 2014 at 5:15 AM

      Agreed. If the young core of talent notes one step closer they can very well win more then 84 games I’m just worried about the rotation more then anything. On another note I’m glad Drew gave some stats on how much Martin brings to a team. His bat is not that important compared to how much he helped that pitching staff. I mean his 3.17 era was better then even Molina which really goes to show you how well he works behind the plate. Hope he can get another solid deal after this year’s contract expires.

  6. johnnysoda - Mar 27, 2014 at 7:05 AM

    Man, no one has any faith in Pittsburgh. I’m gonna do something bold: call them the NL Central champs in a big upset.

  7. thepittsburghkid - Mar 27, 2014 at 9:00 AM

    What you fail to realize is that we have Charlie Morton and his nasty stuff for a full year. His career numbers mean nothing, since he has changed arm slots he’s been dominant at times. We have Cole a full year, and he’s an Ace. What I’m trying to say is, stop with the cookie cutter observations, you’re missing the bigger picture. SATAN

  8. cyclops1771 - Mar 27, 2014 at 12:09 PM

    Wait. They signed 2 young players to long term (potentially under market prices if they pan out) deals? Where is the OUTRAGE? Where is the SCUMMIEST Front Office in history stories?
    I thought this was the worst thing ever?

  9. joerevs300 - Mar 30, 2014 at 8:10 PM

    Look, if you’re a Pirates fan of any cloth, you know damn well Bob Nutting and NH were NOT going to overspend.

    Imagine if Burnett was still in this rotation behind Liriano. No, not perfect, but you’ve got a legit 1-3 there, along with one of the best bullpens in the NL.

    And well, minor league talent with the Pirates is primarily at the PITCHING spot, not with the bats. That’s the other thing they failed to do, get at least a marginally good 1B. They failed to do that too.

    So, unless:
    a) the SP and RP match their success from last year
    b) they manage to be a +54 in run differential (something I do not see happening)

    They will be lucky to win 80 games, let alone 84 games. Their defensive numbers stand to regress as well, which contributed mightly to that +54 run diff.

    It’s sad, really. Fans came out in droves to support this team, and made them a ton of $$$/profit.

    Instead of spending it to give the team a continued chance at the postseason while Tailon/et al from the minors work their way into the ML rotation, they put it in their pockets.

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