Pittsburgh Pirates: 5 Encouraging Starts Amid the Bucs' Early-Season Slump

Andrew Kaufman@akaufman23Senior Analyst IApril 12, 2013

Pittsburgh Pirates: 5 Encouraging Starts Amid the Bucs' Early-Season Slump

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    The Pittsburgh Pirates have not gotten off to the start they had hoped for in 2013, opening the season with a 3-6 record while playing generally uninspiring baseball.

    Aside from a brief two-game stint against the Diamondbacks, the Pittsburgh offense has looked completely lifeless, and even the Bucs' decent pitching performance comes with caveats around innings pitched and injuries.

    Wandy Rodriguez pitched very well in his first game, but he left his second start with a thigh injury throwing the Pirates' rotation further into flux.

    But there have been a few bright spots in Pittsburgh, in some instances coming from players who have the potential to be true difference-makers going forward. It's not much to bank on, but the following players represent the few positives Pirate fans can take from the season's first two weeks. 

Starling Marte

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    Marte has essentially been the Pirates' only productive offensive player, as he and Andrew McCutchen are the two Pittsburgh batters performing above replacement level.

    All of the positives that the Bucs were hoping to see from Marte have been abundant so far this season. His bat speed leads to a lot of line-drive base hits, and he is a positive influence both on the basepaths and in the outfield.

    Marte can still improve his batting eye and his decision-making, but he appears to be on a good path towards becoming the player the Pirates want and need him to be. 

A.J. Burnett

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    The Pirates' de facto ace as been another bright spot, as thus far Burnett has answered any questions regarding whether he can repeat his 2012 performance.

    Burnett has been a hard-luck loser in both of his starts, but the Bucs have to be encouraged by the tremendous number of strikeouts (15.59 K/9) he has recorded so far this season.

    It would be nice to see Burnett show some better control, and he hasn't done a great job of pitching late into games so far this season. But the Pirates need strikeout pitchers, and it's good to see Burnett holding up his share of the bargain. 

Justin Wilson

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    That we are already discussing the Pirates' bullpen says all that needs to be said about the Pirates' start to the 2013 season. When three of your five most valuable players are relief pitchers, you aren't generating a lot of value.

    That said, Wilson is the one relief pitcher who can really excite Bucs fans, as it wasn't even clear that he was fully Major League-ready heading into 2013. Thus far, he has exhibited perfect control in 4.1 innings, which is an encouraging sign for a pitcher with his stuff.

    Obviously four innings means very little, but there was a decent probability of Wilson being overwhelmed this April and that hasn't happened yet. 

Mark Melancon

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    Melancon is another reliever whose early-season performance is particularly encouraging, as thus far he has emerged as a reliable force in the eighth inning.

    Melancon has not yet allowed a run through five appearances, striking out a batter an inning while walking nobody. It's hard to put up much better numbers than that.

    With Joel Hanrhan struggling in Boston, the Pirates' first reaction to the offseason trade that saw the Bucs and Red Sox swap relievers must be a positive one.

Jason Grilli

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    The Pirates truly haven't missed a beat without Hanrahan, as Jason Grilli has shown very well in the closer role so far.

    Grilli, promoted to the role after the trade, has saved all three of the Bucs' victories so far in 2013 without allowing a run. 

    Given that the main criticism of Grilli wasn't statistical, but instead was simply that he was unfamiliar with the pressure of being a "proven closer," it's good to see him proving the doubters wrong by simply pitching the same way he did last season.