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Complete Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Season Preview

Adam WellsFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2014

Complete Pittsburgh Pirates 2014 Season Preview

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    For the first time in over 20 years, the Pittsburgh Pirates enter a season with optimism and very high expectations. That's what happens when you make the playoffs and take the eventual National League champions to a winner-take-all game in a postseason series. 

    Getting that long-elusive winning season under their belt was one thing, but the Pirates will have a lot of work to do if they want to be a consistent October threat. They didn't use last year's success to start spending feverishly on free agents or trade away prospects to supplement the MLB roster. 

    Instead, the Pirates opted to do something that will benefit them in the long run: stick with what they knew and trust the minor league development staff.

    Pittsburgh isn't used to having a baseball team that's better than the football team, so you can understand why the city might not be receptive to the quiet offseason the Pirates had. But the team has never been extravagant on the open market.

    For this franchise to succeed, it has to develop its own talent. It worked last year with Andrew McCutchen winning the NL MVP award, Starling Marte turning into one of the best left fielders in baseball and Gerrit Cole looking like an ace in October.

    Here is a deeper look at what the Pirates can expect from 2014.

     

    Note: All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference unless otherwise noted. 

Spring Training Recap

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    Spring training record (through March 26): 14-9, second in NL

    While there are certain aspects of spring training to look at, on the whole, teams are just trying to get through the exhibition season without suffering any serious injuries. 

    That's a nice way of saying not to look at Pittsburgh's strong spring record as an indication of success or failure when the games start to count. After all, it's hard to take thing seriously when the Miami Marlins are tied for most wins in the NL with 17. 

    On the positive side, Andrew McCutchen isn't showing any signs of slowing down after his MVP campaign last year. The star center fielder has torched Grapefruit League pitching to the tune of .513/.558/.974 in 39 at-bats. 

    Mike Trout is rightly lauded as the best all-around player in baseball, but the argument for No. 2 is shrinking, with McCutchen clearly putting some distance between himself and the field. (Miguel Cabrera isn't an all-around great player.)

    Francisco Liriano has made it through spring unscathed, save for a minor groin injury that isn't expected to keep him out, which can be considered a win by itself. But he's also thrown the ball well, with a 2.31 ERA and 10 strikeouts in 11.2 innings. The southpaw has given up 11 hits and four walks, so the control isn't in peak form yet, though that isn't concerning at this point. 

    Gerrit Cole, last year's breakout star, has struggled with everything this spring. He has a 6.17 ERA with 14 hits and three homers allowed in 11.2 innings. The right-hander has to pace himself since this will be his first full season in the big leagues, which can help explain the bloated numbers. 

    With A.J. Burnett now with the Philadelphia Phillies, Cole's role for the Pirates in 2014 becomes even more important. He's got the stuff to handle it, but a sophomore slump would be devastating for Pittsburgh's playoff chances. 

Injury Updates Entering Opening Day

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    Brian Blanco/Getty Images

    The Pirates' only notable injury heading into the season is backup catcher Chris Stewart. He had arthroscopic knee surgery March 19 that is expected to keep him out at least four to six weeks. 

    It's not a huge blow to the Pirates, who have Russell Martin as the starting catcher and can use former first-round pick Tony Sanchez in the backup role until Stewart is ready. 

    Sanchez has been waiting for a chance to prove himself as a backup, getting his first shot in 2013 by playing 22 games and hitting .233/.288/.400 with four doubles and two homers in 60 at-bats. 

    Unfortunately, as a backup catcher, defense is of the utmost importance. He was below average in that department in 112.1 innings last year. It would be nice for Pittsburgh if Sanchez could develop into a serviceable backup, but Stewart will not be sorely missed while he's out. 

Lineup Preview

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Projected Lineup

    No. 1 Starling Marte, LF 
    No. 2 Jordy Mercer, SS
    No. 3 Andrew McCutchen, CF
    No. 4 Pedro Alvarez, 3B
    No. 5 Neil Walker, 2B
    No. 6 Russell Martin, C
    No. 7 Gaby Sanchez, 1B
    No. 8 Jose Tabata, RF

     

    Bench

    Tony Sanchez, C
    Travis Ishikawa, 1B/OF
    Clint Barmes, IF
    Josh Harrison, IF/OF
    Travis Snider, OF

     

    Analysis

    Take out Andrew McCutchen and this is one of the worst units in baseball. Even with the MVP in the middle of their order, the Pirates ranked 16th in slugging, 17th in on-base percentage, 20th in runs scored and 22nd in batting average. 

    It's hard to be a playoff team year after year being a poor offensive team. On top of that, there are clear regression candidates from 2013. 

    Starling Marte's .343 on-base percentage will be hard to duplicate because of a high .363 batting average on balls in play combined with a 138-25 strikeout-to-walk ratio. He has to develop a better approach, work counts and walk more to be the leadoff hitter Pittsburgh needs. 

    Pedro Alvarez has hit 66 homers the last two years, but he is also hitting .238 with a .307 on-base percentage during that span. The 27-year-old is a platoon player, with a career .200/.272/.332 line against left-handed pitching, masquerading as an everyday third baseman. 

    Jose Tabata is an underrated player, though his numbers do tend to get a boost hitting eighth in an NL lineup. The 25-year-old has a .339 career on-base percentage and has gotten on base at least 34 percent of the time in three of his four seasons. 

    It's not a deep lineup, nor are there a lot of players who get on base, but there is power in spots. It won't be enough to push the Pirates into the top half of baseball in runs scored, but it does give them a chance to beat up on teams with weaker pitching staffs. 

Rotation Preview

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Projected Rotation

    No. 1 Francisco Liriano, LHP 
    No. 2 Gerrit Cole, RHP
    No. 3 Wandy Rodriguez, LHP
    No. 4 Charlie Morton, RHP
    No. 5 Edinson Volquez, RHP

     

    Analysis

    Pittsburgh's bread and butter last year was pitching, both in the starting rotation and the bullpen. The Pirates have undergone some notable changes to the former group this season, starting with the addition of Gerrit Cole being around all year. 

    Cole had a typical rookie season, with some good moments and a few rough spots, but he really came along at the end of 2013. He had a 1.69 ERA with 24 hits allowed and a 39-10 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 32 September innings. He was fantastic in two playoff starts, covering 11 innings with five hits allowed and 10 strikeouts. 

    His development this season will be huge, especially with A.J. Burnett gone. Burnett was a safety net the Pirates had to bridge the gap between Liriano and Cole, but now it's all on those two to carry the load. 

    Liriano, another of Pittsburgh's reclamation projects, is always going to make you nervous because of his injury history. He hasn't made 30 starts in a season since 2010, so depending on the southpaw is a dangerous proposition. 

    The underrated arm in the group is Charlie Morton, whom the Pirates signed to a three-year, $21 million extension in December. He's not a big strikeout pitcher, with 85 in 116 innings last year, but he did lead baseball with a 62.9 percent ground-ball rate (min. 100 innings). 

    Edinson Volquez makes no sense as a starter at this point in his career, though the Pirates can plug Jameson Taillon into that spot in May or June. 

Bullpen Preview

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    Jared Wickerham/Getty Images

    Projected Bullpen

    Closer: Jason Grilli, RHP 
    Setup: Mark Melancon, RHP
    Setup: Tony Watson, LHP
    Middle Reliever: Justin Wilson, LHP
    Middle Reliever: Stolmy Pimentel, RHP
    Middle Reliever: Vin Mazzaro, RHP
    Long Reliever: Jeanmar Gomez, RHP

     

    Analysis

    Another area the Pirates can expect regression at in 2014 is the bullpen. Their top five relievers last season (Jason Grilli, Mark Melancon, Vin Mazzaro, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson) all had an ERA under 3.00, and everyone but Grilli threw at least 70 innings. 

    How volatile are relievers? Consider that in 2012, Melancon pitched his way out of Boston by posting a 6.20 ERA with eight homers allowed in 45 innings. Putting him back in the National League turned out to be a magic elixir for the right-hander. 

    The good news is that the Pirates have depth to withstand regression in some spots, but the fickle nature of relief pitching doesn't make it likely that last year's 2.89 ERA as a unit will be duplicated. 

Prospects to Watch

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Gregory Polanco, OF

    If there's one player who you can point to as a parallel for everything the Pirates have been through the last 21 years, it's Gregory Polanco. 

    Pittsburgh signed Polanco out the Dominican Republic as an 18-year-old in 2009 and as recently as 2012 he was listed at 170 pounds. He was all tools and upside until growing into that frame, which he did in a major way last year. 

    Polanco now weighs 220 pounds and carries it well, still boasting plus speed to go with plus raw power and tremendous bat control. He's also an above-average defensive center fielder even though Andrew McCutchen is locked into that spot for a long time. 

    The Pirates are starting Polanco in Triple-A to start the year, but it shouldn't be long before he takes over as the everyday right fielder. 

     

    Jameson Taillon, RHP

    Another highly touted Pirates prospect who will start the year in Triple-A, Taillon needs more seasoning in the minors before coming up. He's got big-time stuff but hasn't translated it into results. 

    Last year, for instance, Taillon had a 3.73 ERA with 143 hits allowed and 143 strikeouts in 147.1 innings. 

    If Taillon's big fastball-curveball combination starts to miss more bats, he could give the Pirates an excellent trio with Liriano and Cole by the end of the year. 

Breakout Candidate

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Gerrit Cole, RHP

    It seems strange to call Cole a breakout candidate after what he did as a rookie last season, but there really is no limit to how high the right-hander can climb. 

    The Pirates drafted Cole with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. He was considered an elite talent at the time, with ESPN's Keith Law (Insider subscription required) writing that the right-hander already had two plus-plus pitches (fastball, changeup) and an above-average slider. 

    Cole put everything together after the Pirates called him up last year, looking like an ace in the making. By the end of 2014, we could be talking about him as one of the best pitchers in baseball. 

     

     

Top Keys to Success

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    1. More Consistency From Offense

    The reason Pittsburgh hasn't been active on the free-agent market recently has as much to do with boasting one of the deepest farm systems in baseball as it does with a limited financial portfolio. 

    McCutchen is a rock in the No. 3 hole, but no one else is dependable over 162 games. Marte, who agreed a six-year contract extension Wednesday, per Tom Singer of MLB.com, is the No. 2 player on the roster and has to evolve from the player he was last year. 

    There's nothing wrong with Marte hitting .280/.343/.441 again, but it would indicate that he's already plateaued at age 25. Seeing him get on base more while striking out less and hitting 15-18 homers would make him exponentially better in 2014. 

    The rest really are what their numbers indicate they are. Pedro Alvarez hits a lot of homers and doesn't get on base. Russell Martin is good for 15-20 homers, excellent defense and limited batting averages. 

    As long as one other player in the lineup steps up—most likely Marte because of his age and tools—the Pirates should be fine. 

     

    2. Replacing A.J. Burnett

    It seems strange to think considering how his tenure ended in New York, but Burnett turned into the horse Pittsburgh needed when it acquired him before the 2012 season. He had a 3.41 ERA, 389 strikeouts and a ground-ball percentage of 56.7 in two years  with the Pirates. 

    No matter who you have waiting in the wings, even someone as talented as Cole, there is going to be a drop in production without Burnett. Cole was already in the rotation, so the Pirates are actually replacing Burnett with Volquez. 

    If you have faith that Volquez can throw a strike, you're more optimistic than most of the world. Cole and Liriano are good enough to lead a rotation, but that still leaves three holes in the rotation. 

    As much as Charlie Morton can dazzle you with ground balls, he hasn't thrown more than 171.2 innings in a single season. 

Previewing the Pirates' Opening Series vs. Cubs

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Projected Pitching Matchups

    March 31: Francisco Liriano vs. Jeff Samardzija
    April 2: Gerrit Cole vs. Edwin Jackson
    April 3: Charlie Morton vs. Travis Wood

    After Opening Day, neither the Pirates nor the Chicago Cubs have set their starting pitchers. It would make sense for Cole and Jackson to square off, followed by Charlie Morton and Travis Wood, so that's the direction we went. 

    Being matched up with the Cubs right out of the gate is an advantage for the Pirates. It's no secret Chicago is still rebuilding and has yet to bring its top prospects up to the MLB level. Jackson has been at odds with the coaching staff about how he attacks hitters this spring, so there is some dissension in the ranks. 

    On top of that, the Pirates get to open the season at PNC Park. The world saw how wild and raucous Pittsburgh can get when it's excited about baseball last October. Imagine what that crowd will be like on Opening Day following last year's breakthrough success. 

    There was some concern Liriano might not be ready for the opener after missing some time with groin stiffness, but he told Jenn Menendez of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that all's well after a simulated game Wednesday:

    Feels great. Didn’t bother me at all. Everything feels normal. My only concern was throwing from the stretch. It didn’t bother me so thinking it’s going to be OK. I think I’ll be OK for opening day.

    For the Cubs, going from Liriano to Cole in consecutive games is like going from a hangover to having someone put a pot over your head and smack it with a wooden hammer. It's not going to end well. 

2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Outlook

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Projected Record: 80-82, third place in NL Central

    You can look all over the Internet without finding any kind of consensus on where the Pirates will end up in 2014. 

    Joe Lemire of Sports Illustrated thinks Clint Hurdle's bunch is going to keep the magic alive this season: 

    Pittsburgh's groundball-heavy pitching staff will still play to its favor, and the likely midseason arrivals of its next two top prospects, outfielder Gregory Polanco and righthanded starter Jameson Taillon, will keep the Pirates churning along behind reigning NL MVP Andrew McCutchen

    On the other side of the spectrum, statistical analyst Clay Davenport's projections have the Pirates going 83-79 and finishing second in the National League Central, two games behind the Atlanta Braves and San Francisco Giants for the wild-card spots. 

    One injury to Liriano or Cole will cripple the pitching staff, especially if it happens early in the season before Taillon is ready to come up. 

    Another issue is the bullpen. It was fantastic last year, but so much went right for that group that can't possibly go right again. 

    McCutchen, Marte and power hitters Alvarez and Martin are good enough to carry the lineup. It won't be a great group, though there's some potential for it to hit a lot of home runs. 

    There's still enough talent on the roster for the Pirates to flirt with .500 in 2014, but suddenly, that doesn't look good enough for the franchise after last year's success. 

     

    If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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