Why the Pittsburgh Pirates Can Break Their Record Streak of Losing Seasons

Joshua AxelrodCorrespondent IMay 6, 2013

Why the Pittsburgh Pirates Can Break Their Record Streak of Losing Seasons

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    Seriously, do not laugh: This could be the year that the Pittsburgh Pirates break their 20-year losing record streak.

    They came tantalizingly close last year before collapsing late in the season. The Pirates just love to get their fans' hopes up before crushing them like Starling Marte has been crushing balls this season.

    It is early May, which must mean the Pirates are giving the Pittsburgh faithful reason to believe 2013 could be the year of the Buccos.

    As it stands, the Pirates are 17-14, only three games behind the St. Louis Cardinals for first place in the NL Central. Yep, right on schedule.

    But this could actually be the season the Pirates get back to something resembling respectability. Pittsburgh has a solid pitching staff, excellent bullpen and two young stars who almost single-handedly carry its offense.

    These upstart Pirates might actually have what it takes to break one of the most embarrassing streaks in professional sports.

Pitching

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    This unit actually looks like it might be able to make opposing offenses nervous for once.

    The Pirates’ two wily veterans—36-year-old A.J. Burnett and 34-year-old Wandy Rodriguez—lead a group that also includes James McDonald, Jeanmar Gomez and Jeff Locke.

    This is a surprisingly deep pitching rotation considering the fact that Jeff Karstens, Francisco Liriano and Charlie Morton are all on the disabled list.

    In addition, Mark Melancon is having a pretty respectable season in relief, and Jason Grilli is doing an impressive Joel Hanrahan impression.

    If the pitching staff lives up to its potential, a Pirates winning season will become an expectation, not a novelty.

A.J. Burnett

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    The New York Yankees probably were not expecting Burnett to become the Pirates’ No. 1 pitching option when they traded him to the Buccos last season. Oh well, their loss.

    Burnett is currently leading Pittsburgh’s starters with three wins, an ERA of 2.57 and 57 strikeouts. He has pitched the most of any Pirate by far, with 42 innings under his belt so far this season.

    The two-time World Series winner has 2,028 career strikeouts to his name. For a team that's been devoid of big-name pitchers with prolific stats for a while, that is an accomplishment in and of itself.

    The Pirates have not had a true star at pitcher for a long time. Luckily for them, Burnett is sliding into that role quite nicely.

Wandy Rodriguez

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    The Pirates made a wise decision this offseason to acquire Rodriguez from the Houston Astros, as he immediately stepped into the starting rotation.

    So far this season, Rodriguez is 2-2 with 31.1 innings pitched, 25 strikeouts and an ERA of 4.02. Not the most amazing statistics in the world, but good enough to be the team’s second-best starting pitcher behind Burnett.

    Rodriguez scared Pirates nation in April when he went down with a hamstring injury against the Arizona Diamondbacks. He is currently off the disabled list and just pitched Saturday against the Nationals in a 6-2 loss.

    That blemish aside, Rodriguez brings experience and leadership to the young Pirates pitching lineup. That will prove valuable as the Buccos attempt to right the ship.

Mark Melancon

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    Jason Grilli must love coming in after a Melancon eighth inning. He can generally feel safe knowing that the Pirates’ top reliever took care of business.

    Melancon leads the Pirates with 11 holds and has tallied 15 strikeouts—more than starting pitcher Gomez. He has only given up one earned run in 16 innings this season.

    The relievers have always been one of Pittsburgh’s most glaring weaknesses. But between the efforts of Melancon and guys like Tony Watson and Justin Wilson, this is no longer a disadvantage for the Pirates.

    In fact, relief pitching is now one of Pittsburgh’s biggest strengths.

Jason Grilli

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    Pittsburgh could not ask for much more than it's gotten out of its closer. Grilli is erasing all memories of Hammer Time in Pittsburgh.

    The man has 12 saves and 21 strikeouts to his name so far. The Pirates have won 13 of the 14 games that he has pitched in this season.

    Most importantly, Grilli has instilled a sense of confidence in the Buccos. They know that Grilli can and will close games—a luxury the Pirates have not always enjoyed.

    If the game is close and they need a reliable guy to secure a victory, the Pirates know that Grilli will step up to the plate (figuratively of course). As long as the offense does its thing, there is every reason to believe that Grilli can become one of the best closers in baseball.

Offense

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    The Pirates are never going to be known as an offensive powerhouse. But they can muster enough firepower to stay with any team in the majors.

    Starling Marte and Andrew McCutchen make up one of the most fascinating left field/center field combinations in baseball. The former is an upstart who has been playing out of his mind this season, and the latter is the team’s best player who is still waiting to get hot.

    Russell Martin, Gaby Sanchez and Garrett Jones have been carrying their fair share of the offensive load. They make up for holes in the lineup, like Clint Barnes.

    Then there is Pedro Alvarez, one of the streakiest players around. His batting average may be abysmal, but when he's on, he is practically unstoppable.

    Once Neil Walker gets off the disabled list, this team may really start to fire on all cylinders offensively. For now, the Pirates have been working with what they have and getting some nice production.

Starling Marte

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    Starling Marte is proving that he is one of the best young players in the game. At 24, he is emerging as a legitimate star and the Pirates’ best chance of turning around their losing ways.

    He currently leads Pittsburgh with 40 hits, a .325 batting average and an on-base percentage of .390. Add 16 RBI and five home runs to those already impressive statistics.

    Marte has rejuvenated Pittsburgh’s offense thanks to his knack for hitting timely homers. Fantasy baseball players looking for an under-the-radar addition to their lineup should take note.

    Marte and McCutchen are the Pirates’ present and future. If they can break the losing-record streak, you can be sure the Pirates will keep up that momentum for years to come thanks to these guys.

Andrew McCutchen

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    Speaking of Andrew McCutchen, he has not quite gotten into a groove yet. He is still playing at a high level, just not up to the standards he has set for himself.

    The career .289 batter is only batting .250 with four home runs and a team-leading 17 RBI. Certainly not his best numbers, but not a bad start.

    Cutch is the only big name on the Pirates’ offense. The All-Star graced the cover of MLB 13: The Show, proving that his star is rising.

    The Pirates must have love having a guy marketable enough to win a video game cover vote through social media. Now, they just need Cutch to elevate his game to have a chance at avoiding another losing season.

Russell Martin

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    Remember that time from 2005-2011 when Ryan Doumit was the Pirates’ best option at catcher? Those were dark times indeed.

    Pittsburgh must be ecstatic about having a starting catcher who can stay healthy and hit in Russell Martin. He currently leads the team in home runs with six (hopefully Cutch and/or Marte overtake him in that category eventually). He also has the second best on-base percentage on the team at .362, along with a .272 batting average and 11 RBI.

    Consistency is the name of the game here, and Martin is proving that he can be that guy for the Pirates.

    The trio of Martin, Jones and Sanchez have been exactly what the Pirates needed to help Cutch and Marte on the offensive side to pick up the slack in Neil Walker’s absence.

Pedro Alvarez

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    This is a bold statement, but it is accurate: The key to a Pittsburgh Pirates winning season is in the bat of Alvarez.

    He is simultaneously one of the most frustrating and electric players in the game because of his hilariously streaky tendencies. He can either spark an offensive resurgence or look like he has never picked up a bat before.

    His statistics frankly do not make sense. He has 18 hits, 13 RBI and five home runs off a .178 batting average. To put that into perspective, Gomez has the best batting average of any pitcher on the Pirates.

    Somehow, he keeps managing to produce while seemingly only hitting the ball once in a blue moon. If he ever starts hitting with even an ounce of regularity, the Pirates offense will become pretty formidable.

    That is why Alvarez, even more so than Marte and Cutch, is the guy to watch during this 2013 Pirates season. If he gets hot for a month or two, it might be enough to propel the Buccos to that winning season that has been eluding them for so long.