Pittsburgh, once known as “The City of Champions,” is placing a lot of pride and pressure on the backs of these players. It is going to be crucial that the right pieces fall back into place for another long road to October.
As soon as the defending National League-champion St. Louis Cardinals knocked out the Bucs, the process of getting the franchise back to the playoffs was on everybody’s mind.
In terms of talent, not much has changed for the Pirates heading into the 2014 season. However, the expectations have. To make it to baseball’s biggest stage, the Pirates are going to have to build off of last year’s success with players who can handle the recent attention the franchise has been receiving.
Along with that, players are going have to produce big numbers in all areas. In a division like the NL Central, All-Star players will need to produce All-Star stats. These are the players who can do just that.
Polanco is a 22-year-old outfielder from the Dominican Republic who has yet to play in the major leagues and won’t until June at the earliest.
He has been rated by Baseball Prospectus as the No. 12 prospect in baseball, and his 66 runs and 134 hits in the minors last year can only help what could be the MLB’s top outfield next year. However, his potential doesn't guarantee he will be essential to the team's success this season.
Right-hander Jameson Taillon could be a contender for NL Rookie of the Year, but like Polanco, he is not expected to see playing time at PNC Park until the summer.
Taillon was picked second overall in the 2010 MLB draft because of his 6'6" frame and smooth delivery. His fastball has a high of 99 m.p.h., making him a physically imposing figure on the mound.
Tabata has been looking to prove himself since he signed a five-year, $14.75 million contract with a three-year club option for 2017-2019. The 25-year-old can do that if he can continue to play with the likes of Andrew McCutchen and Staring Marte.
With Polanco expected to make his MLB debut this year, Tabata has to show manager Clint Hurdle that he is the man for the job.
Melancon was acquired by the Pirates in a trade with the Boston Red Sox in December 2012. He was fortunate to earn the closer role after Jason Grilli was put on the disabled list.
In his first season with the Pirates, the 28-year-old posted a 1.39 ERA and 16 saves. He finished the season with a 3-2 record. He was also able to earn his first postseason win against the Cardinals.
Melancon is a quality pitcher. If he continues to build on his recent performance, he and Grilli can provide the Bucs with a lethal closing rotation.
Mercer has not played a full season for the Pirates yet, but when he did play, he put up decent numbers. He had 33 runs and 95 hits but was sent back down to the minor leagues when Neil Walker was taken off the disabled list.
Mercer will take over for the aging Clint Barmes this season, and the quality of his performance will determine his standing with the team.
Grilli is getting up there in age but is still providing for this franchise. In April 2013, he won the DHL Delivery Man of the Month after finishing with a 0.82 save percentage along with 10 saves in 10 save opportunities.
“Grilled Cheese” had a 2.70 save percentage in 54 appearances in 2013. He would finish the year with 33 saves in 35 opportunities.
Grilli will have some competition in the bullpen with Melancon. He shouldn’t see this as a friendly competition, though. If Grilli cannot live up to the standards of the team and its fans, then another hungry pitcher will be ready to take his place.
Marte, McCutchen and Tabata are a force to be reckoned with. The Pirates outfield is one of the best in the league. Marte is overshadowed by McCutchen, a perennial All-Star in recent seasons, but the young outfielder is making a name for himself.
The young outfielder drove in 35 runs this year and put the ball into play 143 times. He scored 83 runs in 2013, second only to McCutchen.
Marte has a good blend of speed and power, and he is still maturing physically. Pirates fans should expect to see a bigger, stronger and faster Marte in 2014.
Neil Walker is a Pittsburgh boy. He grew up just outside of the city, so he has experienced the pain Pirates fans have felt for the past 21 years. Walker’s love of the game and of the Buccos is what drives him to be a better player.
In 133 games for the Pirates last year, Walker drove in 53 runs along with 120 hits and 62 runs. These are good numbers for a man who has been in and out of the minors.
He is easily the fastest rising star on the Pirates. He is still young, but he's finally is coming into his own. 2014 should be a good year for Walker.
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez led the National League in home runs last year. El Toro also won the National League Silver Slugger Award.
These accomplishments make Alvarez a pitcher’s worst nightmare. The Pirates are a strong, physical team and he has been at the forefront of their production.
He knows how to drive home runs and that is the point of the game. His 100 RBI are proof of this. The Pirates will look to utilize him even more in 2014. Every team needs a player like Alvarez. Without him, scoring would be a big problem.
Since undergoing Tommy John surgery back in 2006, Liriano has been gradually improving after adopting new pitching mechanics. He is a strikeout pitcher averaging more than one strikeout per inning through 2012.
Liriano had a great debut season with Pittsburgh, finishing up with a 16-8 record. He was also a key player in the Pirates first playoff win in 21 years. Against the Reds, Liriano gave up only one run on four hits in seven innings. The effort helped propel the Bucs to the NLDS where they faced the Cardinals.
If Liriano and Cole get hot at the same time, the Pirates will have one of the most lethal pitching duos in the league.
Martin came up big in the postseason last year against. In the Pirates' first playoff game in 21 years, the Canadian catcher hit a pair of solo home runs against the Reds in the National League Wild Card Game.
Martin had 51 runs and 99 hits last year. He also batted in 55 runs for the Bucs. The 31-year-old leads all major league catchers with eight stolen bases.
The catcher can make big plays in big situations, and that is why the Pirates signed him in 2012. Look for Martin to come up big when the Bucs are in trouble.
The 2013 debut of Gerrit Cole left Pirates fans with little doubt that this pitching lineup could be one of the best in the league. The Pirates acquired Cole with the first pick in the 2011 MLB draft.
Cole, who made his debut back in June, was voted the National League Rookie of the Month in September. Cole led the rookies with a 1.69 ERA and 39 strikeouts. In his 19 starts for the Bucs, Cole went 10-7 and posted a 3.22 ERA.
The pitcher got the nod from Hurdle to start Game 2 of the NLDS against the Cardinals, and he would go on to get the win. He also started in Game 5 over A.J. Burnett but would ultimately lose.
Cole is the guy that can handle the pressure of big-game situations, and we saw that in the playoffs this year. If he can overcome the dreaded sophomore slump in 2014, then Pirates fans should expect some more October baseball this year.
What's left to say about Cutch? He is the current National League MVP and the face of the Pirates franchise. The outfielder is coming off of one of his best seasons in the majors since being drafted back in 2005.
McCutchen stole his 100th base and hit his 100th career home run in 2013, making it a year he’ll never forget. He was also named to the National League All-Star Team for the third straight year.
Cutch finished the season with a .317 batting average along with 21 home runs, 28 stolen bases and 84 runs batted in. 2013 was the fifth year that he stole more than 20 bases.
His efforts led his team to the NLDS before they were knocked out by St. Louis in Game 5. McCutchen is a player who feeds off of defeat, though. There is no doubt that the only thing on his mind this year is taking his teammates and the city of Pittsburgh to the Fall Classic. This season is the optimal time for McCutchen to be heading into his prime.