Last season the Pittsburgh Pirates took some big steps forward.
The team contended to make the playoffs for a good portion of the season. Unfortunately for the Pirates, the second half of the season fared much worse than the first. Pittsburgh really struggled down the stretch, especially in the month of September, as the team won just seven games that month.
The good news for the team was that they managed to finish the season 79-83, their best season since 1997. Though they struggled as the season came to a close, 2012 was rather impressive for the Pirates. Just three seasons ago, they went 57-105, the worst record in the MLB that year.
At the All-Star break, Pittsburgh had won 48 games and was sitting atop the National League Central division standings.
The club finished the first half of the season with a 13-2 victory over the San Francisco Giants, who would go on to win the World Series. A.J. Burnett earned the win and had a 10-2 record going into the All-Star game.
Andrew McCutchen had an unbelievable year for the Pirates and has blossomed into one of the league's bright young stars. He finished No. 2 to Buster Posey in NL batting average. McCutchen also lead Pittsburgh in nearly every offensive category, including home runs and runs batted in.
Pittsburgh made some progress last season but still could not manage to finish .500. Here are five things that must happen for the Pirates to get over that hump:
Andrew McCutchen made a name for himself in 2012.
There is no doubt McCutchen is one of the best young players in Major League Baseball. He has made the All-Star team in consecutive seasons now. McCutchen has so many tools in his repertoire as he can hit, field and run with the best of them.
For Pittsburgh to have success in 2013, it is obvious that McCutchen must put forth another all-star season. McCutchen filled the stat sheet for Pittsburgh last season and carried a rather weak Pirates offense.
At just 26-years-old, McCutchen still has a bright future ahead of him. Opposing pitchers should fear the young outfielder. He improved drastically from his 2011 campaign and will bolster the Pirates lineup if he can continue to improve his game.
The 2012 season was a very difficult one for Russell Martin. Though he was the New York Yankees' everyday catcher, he struggled to get into a groove with his bat all season. The success that Martin had previously had with the Los Angeles Dodgers did not carry over with him to New York. Martin hit a lowly .211 batting average last season, the lowest of his career.
Martin signed a two-year, $17 million contract with the Pirates this offseason. After coming off two disappointing seasons with the Yankees, Pittsburgh is hoping Martin can find success in the National League as he did in LA.
If Martin can bounce back and put together a stronger season swinging the bat, then it will benefit the Pirates greatly.
Ideally, the Pirates would want a bat behind McCutchen that can do some damage. Martin is capable of hitting well, putting forth batting averages over .280 in his first three seasons with the Dodgers.
However, Martin turns thirty next month, and it is possible that his best days are far behind him. Even though his power numbers were stronger with NY, that was most likely due to the small ballpark he played in. If Martin can turn it around though, it would be huge for Pittsburgh.
A.J. Burnett got off to an unbelievable start for Pittsburgh last season. He ended 2012 with perhaps one of the greatest seasons of his career. Burnett posted a 16-10 record and a 3.51 ERA. His 16 wins were tied for No. 6 in the National League. Also a former Yankee, Burnett has found much more success with the Bucs than he did in New York.
Burnett was the key to the Pirates success on the mound in 2012. He led the team in wins, ERA and strikeouts with 180. His amazing first half start was one of the main reasons why Pittsburgh was in the pole position in the NL Central midway through the season.
For Pittsburgh to become a winning ball club, Burnett is going to have to be the ace of the team. Burnett must anchor the rotation and put forth another solid season. If he can pitch as well as he did to start 2012 once the playoff hunt rolls around, Pittsburgh will be in better shape.
Joel Hanrahan was an all-star closer in 2012, representing the NL with McCutchen.
He was sent to the Red Sox last month in a six-player trade, however. This has left the Pirates to lean towards journeyman Jason Grilli to close out games for the upcoming season. Replacing an elite closer such as Hanrahan will be one of the biggest challenges for Pittsburgh this year.
The 36-year-old Grilli has been a reliever for some time but is not too familiar with the closer role.
He has had just five saves in his career, including two this past season. Though he had a difficult 1-6 record in 2012, Grilli can pile up the strikeouts. He had 90 strikeouts and just 22 walks in 58.2 innings for the Pirates last season.
Hanrahan put forth a brilliant 2012 season, collecting 36 saves and managing a 5-2 record. He also blew only eight save opportunities for Pittsburgh over the past two seasons. He will be missed in Pittsburgh without a doubt.
Grilli has shown that he has the stuff to be a closer, as he can strike out a lot of batters while limiting the number of walks he gives up. If he can step in and take over effectively, then that will be one thing Clint Hurdle will not have to worry about so much.
In many cases, a good team is capable of winning even on the longest of road trips. If Pittsburgh wants to become a contender in the NL, they will need to start winning more games on the road.
Last season the Pirates were 34-47 on the road, something that they must improve on for the 2013 season.
The Pirates played very well at PNC Park last season. They went a rather impressive 45-36 at home in 2012. Of course, it is nice to win at home and please the fans that come to support the team, but winning on the road is of extreme importance.
For Pittsburgh to get over the .500 mark, they must play better on the road. Oftentimes it is what separates a good team from a great team.
It is obviously difficult to overcome the loud opposing crowd, but it is something that has to be done in order to become a successful team. Pittsburgh must win more road games in order to finish with a winning record in 2013.