The Pittsburgh Pirates enter the 2013 season looking to improve upon the exciting, yet ultimately disappointing campaigns of 2011 and 2012.
Despite promising first halves in two consecutive seasons, the Bucs find themselves looking at 20 consecutive losing seasons due to poor play down the stretch.
The Pirates have a rather volatile roster this year, and this team definitely has enough talent to end the organizational losing streak. But the Bucs are filled with volatile players, and whether those players play up to expectations will determine the team's eventual success.
The Pirates signed Martin away from the New York Yankees this summer with the intention of solidifying a catcher position that has been a weakness for the past couple of seasons. No matter what Martin's exact production is, he is likely to be a substantial upgrade over 2012 starter Rod Barajas.
Best Case Scenario: Martin replicates his 2012 offensive numbers with the Yankees, improving his BABIP and thus his on-base percentage from a season ago enough to offset the fact that a few of his Yankee Stadium home runs become doubles at PNC Park. Martin's superior defense stabilizes the pitching staff and helps the Pirates control the running game.
Worst Case Scenario: Many of Martin's cheap Yankee Stadium home runs turn into outs in Pittsburgh, and his rate stats decline significantly as a result. His defense appears to worsen with the Bucs as well, as Pirate management discovers that opponents' running success is primarily the fault of the team's pitching staff.
Jones, one of the Pirates' left-handed sluggers, saw a significant uptick in his power production in 2012 that led to him becoming a valuable hitter for the Bucs. He struggles against left-handed pitching and strikes out a lot, so Jones has clear areas to improve in if he is going to become a more reliable offensive option.
Best Case Scenario: Jones maintains his power improvements and rediscovers his strong 2011 walk rate, posting a .330-.340 on-base percentage to supplement 30 home runs and turning into a dangerous offensive weapon.
Worse Case Scenario: Jones sees a slight decline in his power production well once again failing to get on base at a league-average clip and hit lefties. He loses his everyday job and finds himself in a platoon with Gaby Sanchez.
Neil Walker has emerged as one of the Pirates' most consistent players over the last few seasons. The home-grown second baseman has no major flaws in his game, and his defense at a challenge position continues to improve.
Best Case Scenario: Walker's defense and power take a slight step up, and he continues to be one of the Pirates' best all-around hitters.
Worst Case Scenario: Walker is one of the most solid players, with limited upside or downside at this point in his career. The biggest concern is that a nagging back injury will affect Walker's ability to stay on the field in 2013.
Clint Barmes struggled at the plate throughout the 2012 season, offsetting nearly all of the contributions he made in the field. If the Pirates' had major league-ready internal options, it is likely that Barmes would not be the team's starting shortstop.
Best Case Scenario: Barmes builds upon his modest improvement in the second half of 2012 to post more respectable offensive numbers (something around a .300 on-base percentage and a .375 slugging percentage), which combined with his defense make him an acceptable solution at the position.
Worst Case Scenario: Barmes repeats his 2012 offensive production while regressing to the mean slightly on defense, making him a replacement-level option at the position.
After struggling for a few years, the former No. 2 overall pick appeared to find something last season, emerging as a legitimate power option for the Pirates. He is not yet the all-around player the Bucs hoped he would become, but given how lost he has looked at times in the majors Alvarez' 2012 campaign represented a big step forward.
Best Case Scenario: Alvarez cuts down just enough on his strikeouts to make his power an even bigger weapon, and he turns into the clean-up hitter the Pirates have been lacking over the past few seasons, notching 35 home runs and a .500 slugging percentage.
Worst Case Scenario: Alvarez once again looks lost for long stretches of the season and against left-handed pitching, failing to make contact frequently enough to sufficiently utilize his plus power. As a result, his slugging percentage decreases to the .400 range and he only hits 15-20 home runs.
The Pirates have high hopes for Marte, a former top prospect who will be spending Opening Day in Pittsburgh for the first time. Marte is an extremely talented player who is expected to hold down the left field job for a while, but he still needs to refine his approach at the plate.
Best Case Scenario: Marte takes more pitches, increases his walk rate, and becomes the lead-off hitter the Bucs sorely lack. Combining those skills with Marte's speed, power and defense would make him the second-most valuable position player on the team.
Worst Case Scenario: Marte's low walk and high strikeout rates persist, and less of the balls he does put in play fall for hits. Despite his strong defense, he plays the part of a marginally useful outfielder who needs further seasoning.
McCutchen is the Pirates' heart and soul, and he will be the team's best player in 2013 under almost any set of circumstance. The only question that remains is how far he can carry the Bucs.
Best Case Scenario: McCutchen avoids the end-of-year slowdowns that have plagued his past few seasons and plays more fundamentally sound defense, increasing his value yet another notch and earning him his first National League MVP award.
West Case Scenario: McCutchen's BABIP and on-base percentage regress slightly, leaving him as one of the league's best 10-15 players but a clear notch below the Mike Trouts and Ryan Brauns of the world.
Between the next three players on this list, it remains unclear who will emerge as the Pirates' final offensive starter, but Snider is probably likely to get the longest look. The former Toronto prospect is yet another member of the Bucs who has not fulfilled his potential.
Best Case Scenario: Snider complements his solid approach at the plate with improved contact rates and discovers some of his minor league power, emerging as a league-average option in right field and a strong long-term solution at the position.
Worst Case Scenario: Snider's 2012 numbers, which include a .319 on-base percentage and a .378 slugging percentage, are probably pretty close to his floor. The right fielder is also perennially injured, and any additional health problems would only further hamper his development.
If Snider falters, Tabata is a prime candidate to take a chunk of his at-bats. The former Yankee prospect has frustrated Pittsburgh fans with his mental lapses, but Tabata possesses certain offensive talents that many of his teammates lack.
Best Case Scenario: Tabata returns his on-base percentage to his 2010-11 levels (.350 area), regains his focus and gap power, and takes over the starting right field job.
Worst Case Scenario: Tabata repeats his lost 2012 season, earns another demotion to Triple-A, and gets written off by the organization as a future outfield option.
Sanchez was named a surprise Opening Day starter Sunday, pushing Garrett Jones to right field in the team's first game. Pirates management clearly sees something in Sanchez, as the Bucs were willing to part with their compensatory draft pick to acquire him from the Miami Marlins.
Best Case Scenario: Sanchez rediscovers the upward trajectory that saw him post a .352 on-base percentage in 2011, making him one of the Bucs' better offensive weapons and pushing both Tabata and Snider to the bench.
Worse Case Scenario: Sanchez's strikeout, walk and power rates all worsened in 2012, so while some regression might be expected it is fair to question whether he is already a player in decline. If he does not significantly reverse his 2012 performance, Sanchez will not be a useful option at first base.
Burnett emerged as the Pirates' vocal leader last season, endearing himself to Pittsburgh fans during a strong bounceback from his struggles with the New York Yankees. Though Burnett does not have elite numbers, he is the de facto staff ace.
Best Case Scenario: Pirate fans would see nothing wrong with Burnett repeating the roughly 3.50 FIP and ERA he posted in 2012. Slight improvement on those numbers is possible, but not anticipated.
Worst Case Scenario: Burnett's strikeout numbers dip ever so slightly, but enough to have a noticeable impact given his notorious wildness. Some regression is already expected in his walk rate, and these slips would have a big enough impact to reduce him to league-average status.
So far, Rodriguez has done an impressive job of staving off a decline in his stuff, improving his control and ground ball rates in order to compensate for a decline in strikeouts. The rest of the Pirates' rotation is very volatile, so Rodriguez's consistency is a valuable commodity.
Best Case Scenario: Rodriguez's large decline in strikeouts in 2012 proves to be somewhat of a fluke, and the former Astro continues his strong production in other areas to improve his FIP to the 3.50 range.
Worst Case Scenario: Rodriguez simply cannot stave off another year of below-average strikeout production, and he declines to a slightly worse than league-average pitcher.
We are now officially entering the "boom or bust" portion of the Pirates' roster. McDonald posted All-Star caliber numbers in the first half of 2012 and Triple-A caliber numbers in the season's second half. It remains to be seen how the enigmatic pitcher will perform in 2013.
Best Case Scenario: McDonald rediscovers his fastball command, leading to the high strikeout rates and overall dominance that Pirate fans witnessed in the early portion of last season. It may seem like a long time ago, but such a performance is certainly a possibility.
Worst Case Scenario: McDonald can't find the strike zone, continues to give up home runs, and the Pirates' suddenly thin starting pitching depth is stretched even further.
Liriano, now three years removed from a dominant season in Minnesota, is perhaps an even more volatile pitcher than McDonald at this point in his career. He has seen higher highs and lower lows and is an injury risk to boot, expected to miss at least the season's first few weeks with a broken humerus on his non-throwing arm (in addition to his historical health problems).
Best Case Scenario: Liriano, who has always been able to strike a high numbers of batters out even when struggling, rediscovers some semblance of control and gets luckier with runners on base, posting stats worthy of a weak No. 2 or solid No. 3 starter.
Worse Case Scenario: Inconsistency and/or injury catch up with Liriano once again, and he falls out of the Pittsburgh rotation for good by the All-Star break.
When healthy, Karstens has been a solid back of the rotation pitcher for the Pirates over the last few seasons. Karstens has some of the best control in all of baseball, and an improved strikeout rate in 2012 led to him being a very effective pitcher in limited innings.
Best Case Scenario: If Karstens can post 150 innings with similar peripherals to his 2012 performance, he will be one of the most valuable pitchers on the Pirates' roster. It remains to be seen whether his 2012 strikeout numbers are sustainable.
Worst Case Scenario: There are some performance questions surrounding Karstens, but the biggest variable remains injury. If Karstens doesn't pitch more than 75-100 innings, he can't help this team all that much.
The Pirates sure do have a lot of pitchers with control problems entering the season, though Sanchez clearly wins the "worst 2012 performance" honor. It's understandable that the Bucs are taking a long look at him given his potential, but the fact that he will begin the season in the starting rotation is a testament to the Pirates' current pitching woes.
Best Case Scenario: Sanchez will always have below-average control, but his 2010 season, in which he walked 4.5 batters per nine innings and struck out 9.5 en route to a 4.00 FIP, is surely something the Pirates would accept right now.
Worst Case Scenario: Anything remotely resembling Sanchez' 2012 performance would represent a worst case scenario, as the Pirates would designate him for assignment very quickly. He likely only has a few weeks to prove himself before either Liriano returns or the Pirates turn to someone like Kyle McPherson.
Locke, whom the Pirates acquired a few seasons ago in the Nate McLouth trade, will break camp as the team's No. 5 starter. There are a few other options lurking, but Locke can also surpass less consistent players like Sanchez.
Best Case Scenario: Locke is not likely to become a star, but he is capable of posting solid peripherals and a FIP slightly below 4.00. This performance will keep the Pirates in games and is perfectly desirable from a No. 5 starter.
Worst Case Scenario: Locke has always been pretty solid, but there is always inherent risk when a player sees significant major league action for the first time. A significant hiccup in his strikeout rate, which can happen during a pitcher's first full major league season, would make him a marginal rotation option.
Cole, who has been the team's top prospect for the last few seasons, should get his first shot in the majors within a few months. The pitcher will likely spend April and May in Triple-A, and then anything goes.
Best Case Scenario: Cole breezes through his final minor league stop and showcases his full arsenal as early as June. There will almost certainly be hiccups in the majors, but if Cole refines his overall approach he has the stuff to give the Pirates a huge boost as soon as he arrives.
Worst Case Scenario: Cole struggles in the minors but is rushed to Pittsburgh anyway in an attempt to help the team's struggling rotation. No matter the situation with the major league club, the Pirates should take no measure that could possibly harm Cole's development.
Grilli has been a great find since the Pirates plucked him from the Phillies' Triple-A affiliate in 2011, compiling impressive strikeout numbers while serving as Joel Hanrahan's set-up man. After the Bucs traded Hanrahan to the Boston Red Sox, they re-signed Grilli to a two-year deal and made him their closer.
Best Case Scenario: Grilli doesn't skip a beat in the closer role, and he even comes close to matching his ridiculous 13.8 strikeouts per nine innings rate from 2012. If Grilli repeats his 2012 performance, he will be one of the better closers in baseball.
Worst Case Scenario: A combination of regression and adapting to a new role leads to early struggles for Grilli as some of his control issues reemerge. A few bad outings can doom a closer, and it wouldn't be incredibly surprising to see Grilli lose his job to Mark Melancon (just as it wouldn't be incredibly surprising to see any closer lose his job in 2013).
As I have attempted to detail on the preceding slides, there is a lot of variability facing the Pirates heading into the 2013 season. The Bucs have the potential to be a pretty good team if all the pieces come together, but youth and inconsistency can be a dangerous combination,
Best Case Scenario: Players like Alvarez, Marte and McDonald are their better selves and the team stays moderately healthy. The Pirates win 85-90 games, end the losing streak, and compete for a playoff berth.
Worst Case Scenario: The back end of the rotation blows up and the Pirates do not find all the answers they need on offense. The Pirates could still win 75 games in this scenario, with a bigger negative being a failed development year for cornerstones like Marte and Cole.