Pittsburgh Pirates: Are They World Series Contenders in 2014?

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Pittsburgh Pirates: Are They World Series Contenders in 2014?
Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Behold a pale horse, the Pittsburgh Pirates are serious contenders for the World Series in 2014.

After 20 consecutive losing seasons, the Pirates reversed their fortunes with a 94-win season in 2013. The pitch-framing prowess of Russell Martin, leadership of Andrew McCutchen, might of Pedro Alvarez and unforeseen success of the pitching staff led the Steel City exodus out of baseball purgatory once and for all.

Star center fielder McCutchen was quoted as saying, via JockBio.com, "We won’t let history define our future. Our actions will do the talking. Our determination will turn doubters into believers.” And the rest is almost history.

I say almost because the Pirates organization is rooted in a history rich with stars and World Series victories. From Honus Wagner to Roberto Clemente to Dave Parker, the Pirates have tallied five World Series championships.

The current makeup of the clubhouse is reaching the apex of greatness, but they aren't quite there yet. McCutchen and Co. know a World Series victory, their first since 1979, is the only thing that will make them great.

For what it's worth, the 2013 season will never be forgotten among the Pittsburgh faithful. The fervor in which fans raised the Jolly Roger at PNC Park in 2013 is also leading to increased expectations for 2014. With the current roster, the Pirates have enough juice to exceed those expectations and bring the Steel City its first World Series championship in 35 years.

In many ways, the 2014 Pirates mirror the 2008 World Series champion Philadelphia Phillies.

Alvarez is similar to Ryan Howard in power. Martin provides stability behind the plate much like Carlos Ruiz. Neil Walker is cut from the same cloth as Chase Utley. Starling Marte provides electricity akin to Shane Victorino. Finally, McCutchen is playing the role of Jimmy Rollins via superstar talent and leadership.

Like the 2008 Phillies, the 2014 Pirates pitching staff lacks billowing luster on paper.

Cole Hamels, Jamie Moyer, Joe Blanton, Brett Myers and Kyle Kendrick rounded out a Philly rotation that many considered mediocre. Closer Brad Lidge was lights out, tallying 41 saves in 41 opportunities, though. Ryan Madson, Chad Durbin, Clay Condrey and others filled out the bullpen.

In order for the Pirates to live up to and surpass expectations, they will need their pitching staff to outdistance their production from a year ago. Last season, Pittsburgh's team earned run average (ERA) was third best in Major League Baseball. According to FanGraphs, their fielder independent pitching (FIP) was third best as well. 

A major provocateur of their 2013 success, A.J. Burnett, is currently a free agent. Over the winter, the Pirates let Burnett walk after figuring they would not be able to fit his $14 million option into their budgetTherefore, the rotation will have a slightly different look in 2014.

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press
Gerrit Cole is an essential piece in Pittsburgh as the Pirates look to return to the postseason in 2014.

According to MLB Depth Charts, Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole, Wandy Rodriguez, Charlie Morton and Edinson Volquez are projected to round out the rotation. The projected bullpen consists of Vin Mazzaro, Stolmy Pimentel, Bryan Morris, Justin Wilson, Tony Watson, Mark Melancon and closer Jason Grilli.

While Cole has the pedigree to be one of the best arms in baseball for some time, a lot of question marks surround the rest of the staff. Fortunately for Pittsburgh, it has depth with Jeff Locke, Jeanmar Gomez, Brandon Cumpton and elite prospect Jameson Taillon.

To consider the pitching staff ho-hum is dismissing the position the team is in. The Pirates have a plethora of proficient arms to lean on if necessary.

The energy surrounding the lineup is another source of pride for this roster. With Marte leading off, the Pirates are constantly in a position to score runs early on. Shortstop Jordy Mercer is expected to bat second. While he may not be the long-term solution at the position for Pittsburgh, his .285 batting average last season was respectable.

The meat of the lineup consists of McCutchen, Alvarez and Walker. Martin is projected to bat sixth followed up by two platoon situations in the seven and eight holes. 

At first base, the Pirates are likely to split at-bats between Gaby Sanchez and Andrew Lambo. In right field, the platoon of Jose Tabata, Travis Snider and Lambo is expected to loom large.

On the plus side, the Pirates have a farm system affluent with talent. Taillon is the only pitcher who is close to being MLB-ready, though. As for position players, shortstop Alen Hanson and outfielder Gregory Polanco are nearing their turns in the majors. Should some pitching, Mercer or any outfielder not named Marte or McCutchen fail to suffice through June, the Pirates will be able to lean on one of their young and talented prospects to fill the void. 

Baseball is budding once again in Pittsburgh.

The last time the Pirates sustained a run of consecutive winning seasons was from 1990 through 1992. The last time they were a serious threat to reach and win the World Series ended on October 14, 1992. Atlanta Braves first baseman and Carlisle, Pa., native Sid Bream crossed the plate, and the Pirates became irrelevant for the next two decades.

Vegas Insider has the Pittsburgh Pirates at 25-1 odds to win the World Series in 2014. With dark-horse odds, many won't expect them to be as successful as they were a year ago. To win the National League pennant, the Pirates have the seventh-best odds at 12-1. Those odds are just slightly better than the woeful Phillies. 

Inside Pirates' fandom, expectations are huge. Understanding the consequences of seeing Burnett walk into free agency are met with realistic assumptions about the rest of the roster. But to suggest a 37-year-old pitcher will make or break a baseball team is asinine. His loss is not that big of a deal for Pittsburgh.

The truth is that an organization no longer has to spend an abundance of dollars in order to field a championship-caliber club. No, it has to develop talent in-house and play matchmaker with the rest of the pieces to the puzzle.

So far, it looks as if general manager Neal Huntington and skipper Clint Hurdle are doing a great job with that task.

With one of the better farm systems in baseball, the Pirates have turned themselves into the Tampa Bay Rays of the NL. With a roster loaded with potential and following a year where they had better-than-expected success in the postseason, Pittsburgh is priming itself for a serious run at the World Series in 2014.

Major League Baseball is officially on alert.

All statistics provided courtesy of FanGraphs.com and Baseball-Reference.com.

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