NL Central Preview

The Pittsburgh Pirates: Clint and the Kids

Basics

  • Manager: Clint Hurdle (fourth season)
  • 2013 Record: 94-68
  • 2013 Division Finish: Second place
  • 2013 Overall Finish: Lost NLDS (3-2) to St. Louis
  • 2013 Runs Scored: 634
  • 2013 Runs Allowed: 577
  • 2013 Attendance: 2.2 million
  • 2013 Payroll: $79.5 million
  • 2014 Expected Payroll:  $70 million

Cincinnati fans don’t need to be reminded that the Pittsburgh Pirates enjoyed a breakthrough year in 2013. The Reds’ season ended in the extremely unfriendly confines of PNC Park in the play-in game for the post-season. The Pirates won 94 regular season games, snapping a 20-year streak of losing seasons and pushed the Cardinals to a full five games in the NLDS.

By any measure, the Pirates had as inactive of an off-season as did the Reds. Key pieces to the Pirates post-season drive, like Marlon Bryd and A.J. Burnett were allowed to leave. The only notable acquisition to their roster was SP Edinson Volquez, but realistically, the Pirates must be hoping that Volquez doesn’t produce subtraction by addition.

That said, the Pirates can rely on a core of young players, headlined by National League MVP Andrew McCutchen and a strong pitching staff. Even though they may not win as many games in 2014 as they did in 2013, it’s hard not to see them competing for another spot in the play-in game. Clint Hurdle’s team will be highly motivated to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke.

Key Losses from 2013

  • C John Buck
  • SP A.J. Burnett
  • OF Marlon Byrd
  • 1B Justin Morneau
  • RP Kyle Farnsworth
  • 1B Garrett Jones

Key Acquisitions/Extensions

  • SP Edinson Volquez, 1 year/$5 million
  • C Chris Stewart, trade from Yankees, league minimum

Top Ten Prospects (Baseball America, Fangraphs)

Run Scoring

The Pirates finished ninth in the NL in runs scored in 2013. To boost their offense late in the year, they signed Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau, both of whom have moved on to other teams. The Pirates were fifth in wRC+ and eighth in on base percentage.

The Pirates have a top prospect, Gregory Polanco, who is expected to join Starling Marte and McCutchen in the outfield by mid-season.

Projected Lineup

  1. Starling Marte (25), LF
  2. Jordy Mercer (27), SS
  3. Andrew McCutchen (27), CF
  4. Pedro Alvarez (27), 3B
  5. Neil Walker (28), 2B
  6. Russell Martin (31), C
  7. Gaby Sanchez (30), 1B
  8. Jose Tabata (25), RF

Andrew McCutchen (.317/.404/.508) finished the year with 21 homers and 27 stolen bases. The fact that McCutchen produced only 84 RBI didn’t seem to bother Pirates fans or MVP voters. He finished fourth in wRC+ in the NL, behind only Jayson Werth, Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt.

LF Starling Marte (.280/.343/.441) stole 41 bases and hit twelve home runs last season, despite missing three weeks with a sprained wrist. He’s looking to be more aggressive in 2014. Marte also excelled at getting hit by pitches, recording 24 HBP, which helped compensate for a low walk-rate, to keep his OBP suitable for a lead-off hitters. Only Shin-Soo Choo (26) was hit more often.

Pedro Alvarez (.233/.296/.473) demonstrated ample power last  year, slugging 36 home runs, but his low OBP limits his ceiling as a clean-up hitter. Alvarez channels Adam Dunn in strikeouts, too, with a K-rate above 30%. Only Atlanta Braves’ 2B Dan Uggla struck out at a higher rate in the NL.

The Pirates have real weak spots at 1B and RF. First baseman Gaby Sanchez has been a platoon hitter at best, but despite rumors that the Pirates have been looking around for another 1B bat, they seem ready to start the season with Sanchez playing both ways. Jose Tabata is little more than a placeholder until Polanco can be called up in June without risking Super Two arbitration status.

Run Prevention

The Pirates starting rotation finished in the top four in the NL in ERA, FIP and xFIP in 2013. They gambled on signing A.J. Burnett and Francisco Liriano based on non-ERA statistics and were rewarded last year as both pitchers were outstanding. Burnett has moved on, but Liriano will headline their starting staff.

The Pirates attribute much of their success at preventing runs in 2013 to their pro-active use of defensive shifting and instructing their pitchers to induce ground balls. They were extremely successful at the latter. Pirates’ starters led the NL with a 53% ground ball rate. That was farther ahead of the second place team (48%) than the second place team was ahead of the fourteenth place team. The Pirates bullpen also led the NL in inducing late-inning ground balls.

They Pirates will have to replace A.J. Burnett, who left as a free agent and, after publicly flirting with retirement, signed a 1-year contract with the Phillies.

Expected Rotation

  1. Francisco Liriano (30), LH
  2. Gerrit Cole (23), RH
  3. Wandy Rodriguez (35), LH
  4. Charlie Morton (30), RH
  5. Edinson Volquez (30), RH

Francisco Liriano experienced a rebirth of sorts in 2013, returning to his previous form with the Minnesota Twins. Liriano had an ERA of 3.02 an FIP of 2.92 and xFIP of 3.12. He was particularly brutal on Reds star lefties, Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo. The Pirates will need for Liriano to repeat that performance in 2014.

Wandy Rodriguez, with whom the Reds are familiar dating back to his days pitching for the Astros, missed the last four months of 2013 with forearm/elbow issues. He picked up the $13 million option on his 2014 contract. His health remains an issue as Rodriguez opted against surgery last fall.

Gerrit Cole is legitimate ace material and may reach that level as early as this year. He was dominant for the Pirates down the stretch last fall. He started two games of the NLDS, giving up 5 hits and two walks against ten strikeouts in eleven innings against the Cardinals.

Charlie Morton returned from Tommy John surgery at mid-season. He just signed a three-year extension after producing a 3.26 ERA and 3.60 FIP in 2013.

The Pirates insist that Edinson Volquez will be their fifth starter, despite his checkered record and poor spring. You have to wonder if the assignment has more to do with the $5 million contract they agreed to than it does straight merit.  They have LHP Jeff Locke if they want to replace Volquez.

Another top pitching prospect, Jameson Taillon, is just a little bit behind Cole in development. Taillon stands a good chance of promotion to the Pirates in June.

Bullpen

The Pirates bullpen was ranked in the top four in ERA, FIP and xFIP in the National League last season. For most of the year, the Pirates enjoyed an unparalleled 1-2 punch in the bullpen, with Jason Grilli closing and Mark Melancon pitching the eighth inning. Melancon took over in August when Grilli was sidelined with a right forearm strain. When Grilli returned in early September, Melancon kept the closer role. But the 37-year old Grilli will return in 2014 as the Pirates’ ninth-inning specialist.

The Pirates also have two outstanding left-handed relievers, Tony Watson and Justin Wilson, who had excellent seasons in 2013. It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Pirates trade a bit of bullpen depth for offense.

  • Closer: Jason Grilli (37)
  • Set-up: Mark Melancon (28)
  • Lefty specialists: Tony Watson (28), Justin Wilson (26)

2 thoughts on “The Pittsburgh Pirates: Clint and the Kids

  1. The scariest pitcher they have, as far as I’m concerned (given it has no basis in statistics at all) is Charlie Morton. The man is a Redleg killer. Seems like everytime he pitches, the Reds stumble at the plate. Either way, this is going to be a fun set of series to watch this year. I think the Reds and the Pirates are going to be an evenly matched lot.

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