5 Players Who Must Take Next Step to Make the Pirates a 2013 Playoff Team

Kyle Stanzel@@DmndPrspctsCorrespondent IIIOctober 3, 2012

5 Players Who Must Take Next Step to Make the Pirates a 2013 Playoff Team

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    For the second consecutive season, the Pittsburgh Pirates have had to endure a second-half collapse that saw their playoff hopes crushed and a 20th consecutive losing season realized.

    Despite the disappointing finish, several Pirates players made huge strides in their game to help the team even have a shot at the postseason.

    Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones all hit at least 25 home runs, A.J. Burnett looked like his old self and bullpen arms like Tony Watson, Jared Hughes and Jason Grilli provided some late-inning security.

    With the 2012 season nearly in the books, the 2013 campaign holds a lot of promise for a young team with a lot of upside.

    However, they are not going to make the playoffs next season by simply repeating the performance they had this season.

    Here is a look at five players who need to step up in 2013 for the Pirates to finally break the streak and reach the playoffs.

Pedro Alvarez

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    Pedro Alvarez is a legitimate candidate for NL Comeback Player of the Year after smacking 30 home runs in 2012 compared to just four the season before.

    However, Alvarez is going to have to improve his consistency at the plate and cut down on the strikeouts if he is going to be that power bat in the middle of the lineup.

    As streaky a hitter as they come, Alvarez is one of those players who can single-handedly win a game with his bat if he wants.

    For the Pirates to be contenders in 2013, Pedro Alvarez is going to need to continue to make significant strides toward finding consistency at the dish.

James McDonald

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    A Cy Young Award candidate for the first half of the season, James McDonald completely fell apart after the All-Star break and eventually lost his spot in the starting rotation.

    McDonald's walk totals skyrocketed in the second half and the Pirates were usually playing from behind in his starts due to first-inning struggles.

    There is no denying that McDonald has the arsenal and potential command to be a frontline starter for the Buccos; it is just a matter of him putting it together over an entire season.

    Despite his finish to 2012, James McDonald should have a rotation spot for Opening Day next season, and hopefully the soon-to-be 28-year-old will take his game to the next level.

Starling Marte

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    Starling Marte entered the season as the Pirates' top position prospect and he largely impressed the Pirates' staff despite an up-and-down major league debut.

    A five-tool player with outstanding speed, surprising power and an absolute cannon for an arm, Marte is the kind of impact player that could be the missing piece for the Pirates' playoff run.

    Despite all of his tools, Marte does struggle with his plate discipline and pitch recognition, which causes him to strikeout more than most hitters at the top of the lineup.

    If Marte can put together his game in a similar way to what Andrew McCutchen has done over the past couple of years, the Pirates could be looking at a postseason berth in 2013.

Jordy Mercer/Chase D'Arnaud

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    While he flashed one of the best gloves in all of baseball, Clint Barmes' performance at the plate is something that just can't be tolerated for another season.

    With no desire to invest in one of the free agents expected to be on the market this offseason, the Pirates will turn to either Jordy Mercer or Chase D'Arnaud to take over the starting shortstop job.

    Contrary to the previous season, Mercer has seen more time in the majors in 2012 and has shown off his solid glove and decent pop in limited play.

    D'Arnaud struggled for most of the season at Triple-A Indianapolis, but he earned a promotion to Pittsburgh late in the season. The 25-year-old has excellent speed and base-stealing abilities.

    The shortstop battle will be an interesting one to watch in spring training, and whoever wins will have a significant impact on the Pirates' playoff hopes in 2013.

Gerrit Cole

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    The Pirates' top prospect and one of the best pitchers in the minor leagues, Gerrit Cole should certainly get a look at a rotation spot in spring training.

    The former No. 1 overall pick in 2011, Cole dominates hitters with his power arsenal and bulldog mentality on the mound.

    It is starting to look more and more like the time to win is now for the Pirates, and that means getting the best players in the system to Pittsburgh sooner rather than later.

    Cole has the stuff and the pedigree as a top prospect to handle a jump to the majors, despite just one start above Double-A.

    It will take a lot of adjustments and he will certainly hit some rough patches along the way, but if there is any pitcher who can come in as a rookie and lead a team on the mound, it is Gerrit Cole.

    If Neal Huntington and Clint Hurdle want to give Pirates fans their best shot and seeing a playoff team in 2013, they will start the season with top prospect Gerrit Cole contributing in the rotation.