This series will evaluate one team per day, starting on Jan. 23, 2013, and ending on Feb. 22, 2013 (the first game of spring training). It is based on last season's performance, the offseason changes since then and the author's outlook for the team in 2013. Please keep in mind that rosters can, and will, change before Opening Day. We started in the AL East, worked across to the NL counterpart and now tackle the Central divisions in alphabetical order. Next up, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
2012 finish: 79-83 (4th place, NL Central)
LHP Francisco Liriano, LHP Jonathan Sanchez, LHP Mike Zagurski, RHP Mark Melancon, RHP Zach Thornton, RHP Rick van den Hurk, RHP Vin Mazzaro, OF Felix Pie, OF Jerry Sands, 2B Ivan DeJesus, C Russell Martin
LHP Hisanori Takahashi, RHP Joel Hanrahan, RHP Chris Resop, RHP Kevin Correia, RHP Chad Qualls, 3B Yamaico Navarro, C Rod Barajas
Why they will improve this year
The Pirates were surprising everyone in 2012 and looking like a legitimate playoff contender, until the strong starting pitching started faltering down the stretch. In the offseason, they picked up southpaw Liriano, who will likely take the place of Correia in the rotation.
While that's not exactly an upgrade, the rotation does hold a bit more promise with fellow lefty Wandy Rodriguez in the fold for a full year, as well as another year of presumed growth from James McDonald. Re-signing Jason Grilli was a huge move to assure that losing Hanrahan as the closer wouldn't sting as much as it should have.
I've really liked the Pirates' young lineup for a while, but this season gives me even more hope for them. New, young talent at the corner outfield spots in Starling Marte (LF) and Travis Snider (RF) holds unlimited potential. Another year of progress at the plate for Pedro Alvarez, plus the addition of Martin at catcher could turn this offense from a sleeping giant to a terrifying monster.
Pittsburgh was excruciatingly close to finally reaching a .500 record last season for the first time since 1992. The 2013 team has the best shot since then to get there, let alone compete for a playoff spot. It's a tough division, but with the slight uptick in starting pitching and a potentially vast improvement on offense, 81 wins is certainly in reach.
Why they will regress this year
It's a well-known fact that winning a World Series with a lack of starting pitching is very, very difficult. The Pirates definitely have a lineup capable of contention, but is a rotation comprised of A.J. Burnett, McDonald, two inconsistent lefties and Jeff Karstens going to cut it? They might need some help.
The bullpen lost a stellar closer in Hanrahan this offseason, and even though the return from Boston is pretty significant, they could suffer in 2013. Grilli is a worthy replacement, but he has five career saves to his name. Not having a shut down closer is a dangerous line to toe for a team hoping to reach the playoffs.
As for the lineup, the Pirates know what they're getting from McCutchen (in a great way) and Clint Barmes (in a bad way). But can the young guys like Marte and Snider continue to improve? Will Pedro Alvarez continue to be a huge power source? Will Martin, Garrett Jones or Neil Walker have good years?
If Marte and Snider regress, and if one of the other mainstays in the lineup struggles, the Pirates may not have enough offense to make a run at the postseason. In a worst case scenario, Pittsburgh will get average numbers from their pitching staff and not much offense out of anyone not named McCutchen. And that would ensure them a 21st straight losing season.
The outlook for 2013
Consider me a closet Pirates fan. I picked them to end the drought of losing seasons last year and missed it by two wins. I think they got better over the winter, even if just slightly. This team knows they can win, and I think they will play like it. There is also a plethora of young talent that the Pirates have stockpiled to provide depth for 2013 and beyond.
I don't consider the Pirates a playoff threat quite yet, but they are close. If Gerrit Cole gets the call at some point in 2013 and pitches well, they are even closer. I'm looking for another good season for both Burnett and McDonald, but I'm not expecting much out of Liriano or Karstens. I am a fan of Rodriguez, and think he'll step it up in Pittsburgh this season.
The bullpen did go through a bit of a change with Grilli taking over for Hanrahan and with the addition of Melancon. The Pirates were right in the middle of the pack last season in bullpen ERA, and I don't expect much change there. The first couple months will determine if Grilli is the guy they need.
I'm really excited to see this offense do its thing though, especially Snider and Marte in their first full seasons. And I fully expect an offense that ranked 10th in runs scored and 14th in batting average last season to jump a few spots in each category. It's my opinion that the Pirates will barely break the .500 mark (and that god-awful streak), but will still finish a close fourth in the Central.
Potential changes before Opening Day
Pittsburgh, though they could use a couple more arms to deepen the starting rotation and the bullpen, is seemingly set for the 2013 season. With the recent signings of Liriano and Sanchez, they did add starting pitching possibilities that were sorely needed.
MLB.com's Tom Singer does think the Pirates could shop Jones for a shortstop—namely Red Sox prospect Jose Iglesias. While I highly doubt a move of that sort will be made, it would benefit the Pirates to at least look at a shortstop who can play defense and surpass Barmes' mediocre, offensive output.
Biggest surprise: Wandy Rodriguez
Biggest disappointment: Jason Grilli
Bold prediction: James McDonald wins 15 games, 3.50 ERA, 1.15 WHIP, 175 K's, all career highs
1. Starling Marte, LF
2. Neil Walker, 2B
3. Andrew McCutchen, CF
4. Garrett Jones, 1B
5. Pedro Alvarez, 3B
6. Russell Martin, C
7. Travis Snider, RF
8. Clint Barmes, SS
1. A.J. Burnett, RHP
2. Wandy Rodriguez, LHP
3. James McDonald, RHP
4. Francisco Liriano, LHP
5. Jeff Karstens, RHP
Projected finish: 82-80, 4th place
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You can follow Jeremy on Twitter @Jamblinman.